Asian and African studies blog

176 posts categorized "South Asia"

24 April 2023

Animals: Art, Science and Sound

Animals amaze, fascinate and delight us!

In the British Library's new exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound (21 April - 29 August 2023)  you can see how documenting the animals world has resulted in some of humankind's most awe-inspiring art, science and sound recordings. It can take years of research to unlock the secrets of a single species. Did you know that the first photograph of a live giant squid was published in 2005? That bats were first described as birds, and sharks referred to as dogs.

From an Ancient Greek papyrus detailing the mating habits of dogs to the earliest photographs of Antarctic animals and the mournful song of the last living Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, recorded in 1983 and declared extinct in 2000, this is the first major exhibition to explore the different ways in which animals have been written about, visualised and recorded.

The exhibition is arranged into four distinctive environments and visitors will journey through darkness, water, land and air - to encounter striking artworks, handwritten manuscripts, sound recording and printed publications that speak to contemporary debates around discovery, knowledge, conservation, climate change and extinction. Each zone also includes a bespoke, atmospheric soundscape created using recordings from the Library's sound archive.

Some of the highlights includes: 
Painting of a bat
An illustration of a fruit bat, painted at Barrackpore, India. 1804-7, British Library, NHD3/517.

Pierre Belon De aquatilibus Of aquatic species Paris 1553 446a6
An image of a 'monkfish' from Pierre Belon's De aquatilibus (Of aquatic species), Paris, 1553. British Library, 446.a.6. 

Ab Muammad Amad ibn Atq alAzd Kitb albayarah Book on veterinary medicine 1223 Or 1523 ff 62v63r
Illustration of the defects of a horse from Kitab al-baytarah (Book on Veterinary Medicine) by Abu Muhammad Ahmad ibn Atiq al-Azdi, 13th century. British Library, Or 1523, ff. 62v-63r.

105cm record of The Hippopotamus by Talking Book Corporation
An education record for children: The Hip-po-pot-a-mus. Talking Book Corporation, 1918-29. British Library, 9CS0029512.

Animals  Art Science and Sound at the British Library 7
A section of the Chuju zui (Illustrations of Animals and Insects) showing dragonflies and moths, Japan, 1851. British Library, Or 1312. 

There is a season of in-person and online events inspired by the exhibition, such asa Late at the Library with musician, composer and producer Cosmo Sheldrake hosted by musician, author and broadcaster Cerys Matthews and Animal Magic: A Night of Wild Enchantment where five speakers, including wildlife cameraman, ornithologist and Strictly Come Dancing winner Hamza Yassin and birder, environmentalist and diversity activist, Mya-Rose Craig, each have 15 minutes to tell a story. A selection of these works are included in an outdoor exhibitionaround Kings Cross.

A richly illustrated publication written by exhibition curators Malini Roy, Cam Sharp Jones and Cheryl Tipp can be purchased through the British Library's shop. The publication is supplemented with interactive QR technology allows readers to listen to sound recordings.

The exhibition is made possible with support from Getty through The Paper Project initiative and PONANT. With thanks to The American Trust for the British Library and The B.H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library. Audio soundscapes created by Greg Green with support from the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Scientific advice provided by ZSL (the Zoological Society of London). 

28 February 2023

A Panegyric from the Deccan’s Golden Age

This week’s post is by guest writer Namrata B. Kanchan, PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation examines the courtly Dakhni literary and manuscript culture between 1500 and 1700 CE.

One of the gems to emerge from the early modern Deccan manuscript corpus is a sumptuously illuminated Dakhni language qasida or panegyric poem (Or. 13533). Composed by Bijapur’s poet laureate Mullah Nusrati who was associated with the court of ‘Ali Adil Shah II’s (r. 1656-1672 CE), this work is dedicated to the Golconda Qutb Shahi, Sultan ‘Abdullah Qutb Shah (r. 1626-1672).

Qasidah opening f4r Qasidah opening f3v
The opening lines of Nusrati’s qasida, Bijapur ca. 1630s? (British Library Or. 13533 ff. 3v. and 4r).
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Although the text does not provide the reason for this poem’s creation, scholars surmise that it was a royal gift bestowed to the Golconda Sultan on the occasion of his sister Sultana Khadija’s wedding to Bijapur’s Sultan Muhammad ʻAdil Shah (r. 1626-1656) in 1633 (Ahmad, pp. 133-142). Continuing this Dakhni cultural legacy, the Sultana is one of the first known female patrons to commission the monumental illustrated Dakhni Khavarnamah (IO Islamic 834) completed in 1649.

Jamshid Shah with his consort and followers  IO Islamic 834  f. 70v
Jamshid Shah with his consort and followers, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, ca. 1649, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 70v)
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One of the premier genres of the Persianate literary cosmos (to which Bijapur and Golconda belonged), a qasida is, in essence, an encomium. Originating in Arabic literature, it was first cultivated in Persian by patrons under the Samanids (819-999) who were keen promoters of this new literary language. The genre soon became de rigeur in courts and flourished under the Ghaznavids (977-1186) during the eleventh century. One reason for its popularity in these two courts was that the poem was a paean to its patrons, predominantly newly minted rulers or nobles, who were eager to display their power and status. Additionally, this genre gained acclaim because it was beneficial for both the poet and the patron. A successful qasida sealed the poet’s relationship with a ruler and was important for social and financial success at the royal court. Furthermore, by extolling the virtues of an idealized ruler, the poem possessed a dual function. It sought to bestow immortality upon the patron and served a didactic role by guiding and encouraging the ruler to match the qualities expressed by the poet.

Apart from adulating patrons, poets composed these poems to memorialise marriages, victories, hunts, or annual feasts. The celebratory nature of the qasida meant that it was designed for performance and therefore recited in formal courtly gatherings. Not limited to Persian, this genre soon emerged in new languages across the Persianate sphere, which ultimately resulted in Nusrati’s composition of the Dakhni qasida.

In general, a single metre runs through a qasida and each hemistich terminates with the same rhyme. Yet rules for this genre, as opposed to the masnavi or the highly codified ghazal, were often not followed. In the Dakhni qasida,  Nusrati changes the rhyme scheme after a sequence of four to five couplets. 

A closer look at the manuscript reveals that no expense was spared in its creation. The gifted wordsmith Nusrati, who was a budding poet in the Bijapur court in the 1630s, was commissioned to compose the qasida. Similarly, the manuscript’s calligrapher ‘Ali ibn Naqi al-Husayni Damghani penned the encomium in elegant naskh. A Bijapuri native, ‘Ali Damghani emerged from a lineage of renowned calligraphers. His father Naqi al-Husayni was chief scribe of the calligraphic programme at Ibrahim Adil Shah II’s tomb, the Ibrahim Rauza, in Bijapur (Haider and Sarkar, p. 143).

Qasida f29r Qasida f.28v
The conclusion of Nusrati’s qasida, Bijapur ca. 1630s?  (British Library Or. 13533 f. 2v. and 3r)
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This beautifully crafted manuscript commences with two dazzling shamsas or sun-shaped designs radiating from the centre of the folio. A large number of Persianate manuscripts produced for royalty opened with a shamsa, which symbolized divine light. Resembling a circular garden brimming with multi-hued floral patterns against a cream-coloured background, the identically shaped Bijapur shamsas, with slightly different colour compositions, emanate golden rays to mimic brilliant noon-day suns. The second shamsa folio also possesses some discreet writing on the top left corner signaling that this manuscript is composed of 24 folios. A blotted stain above the shamsa on folio 3r is perhaps evidence of a royal seal.

Qasidah r 3r Qasidah f 2v
Shamsas
at the beginning of Nusrati’s qasida, Bijapur ca. 1630s?  (British Library Or. 13533 f. 2v. and 3r)
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Each subsequent folio (so delicate that they are currently preserved individually in glass-frames), painted in gold paint, possesses a border of vivid floral prints. Hemmed within is a rectangular box for the poetry. Although floral borders adorned deluxe Persian manuscripts, this is the first known Dakhni work where the borders of each open folio and its partner folio contain individual designs that resemble a series of golden flower strewn gardens punctuated with neat lines of exquisite calligraphy in a midnight black ink.

Qasidah f 6r Qasidah f 5v
Nusrati’s qasidah, Bijapur ca. 1630s? (British Library Or. 13533 f. 5v. and 6r)
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In many ways, this exquisitely illuminated manuscript signals the apogee of book arts and Dakhni literature in seventeenth-century Bijapur. Any reputed poet could have composed the qasida in Persian but the use of this local vernacular and the commissioning of Nusrati, a poet known for his mastery over Dakhni poetry, demonstrates the popularity of and pride in the indigenous language. Although slim in volume, the manuscript exudes grandeur in every bejeweled folio replete with beautiful poetry and refined penmanship. If indeed this manuscript was a wedding gift from the house of Bijapur to Golconda, it gestures towards the significance of these marital alliances. Weddings were not simply the union of couples or occasions to display a kingdom’s wealth and status. In the Deccan, such partnerships were crucial for political survival, especially in the face of looming Mughal annexation.

 

Namrata B. Kanchan,  University of Texas at Austin
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Further Reading

Ahmad, Nizamuddin. Hadiqat al-Salatin. Edited by Syed Ali Asgar Bilgrami. Hyderabad: Idarah-e Adabiyat-e Urdu, 1961.
Haidar, Navina Najat and Marika Sardar. Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.
Husain, Ali Akbar. Scent in the Islamic Garden: A Study of Deccani Urdu Literary Sources. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Shackle, Christopher. “Settings of Panegyric: The Secular Qasida in Mughal and British India,” in Christopher Shackle and Stefan Sperl ed., Qasida Poetry in Islamic Asia and Africa, vol. 1 Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.

19 February 2023

Akbar and Alexander the Great

With the British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The making of a Myth drawing to a close, I would like to highlight one of my special favourites: the Emperor Akbar’s personal copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Quintet) of which the fifth poem, the Iskandarnamah, is a two part account of the life of Alexander the Great or Iskandar as he is called in Persian.

Iskandar and the priestess. Or.2208 f.318rIskandar and the priestess. Or.2208 f.317v
The priestess pleads with Iskandar to spare the sanctuary idol from destruction. Artists La'l and Mukund. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, ff.317v-318r)
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Commissioned by Akbar (r.1556–1605) in Lahore between 1593 and 1595, this manuscript represents what was without doubt an intensely personal project and combines the work of the best artists at his court. With 37 highly original paintings, luxurious illumination, marginal decorations and binding, this Khamsah  was one of a small group of deluxe Persian manuscripts which also include Jami’s  Baharistan (Bodleian MS. Elliott 254) and the Khamsah  of Amir Khusraw (Walters Ms. W. 624), all produced around the same time in Lahore. In his monumental survey of 1912, the collector and art historian F.R. Martin wrote of it: “Without exception it is the most wonderful Indian manuscript in Europe.” Originally the manuscript contained 44 illustrations, but at some point 39 folios including five illustrated leaves, were extracted and are now in the Walters Art Museum Baltimore Walters Ms. W.613. Two of the original paintings are now lost and an additional portrait of the calligrapher ʻAbd al-Raḥīm ʻAnbarīn Qalam and the artist Dawlat were added at the end in 1610 by order of Jahangir.

With 16 of the 44 illustrations devoted to the Iskandarnamah, it is easy to see Akbar's special affinity with Alexander the Great. Nizami in the early 12th century was the first to qualify Iskandar (Iqbalnamah 29:4) with the adjective Sahib-qiran (Lord of the Conjunction)[1]. Several rulers styled themselves this way, most notably Akbar’s honoured ancestor Timur, founder of the Timurid dynasty in 1370[2]. Like Alexander, Akbar was a successful conqueror, but more particularly Nizami’s portrayal of Alexander as a philosopher-king would have appealed to Akbar who promoted himself as a just and tolerant ruler.

In the opening we used for the exhibition (see above) the double-page illustration has a special significance. Here we see Iskandar at a Buddhist sanctuary at Kandahar receiving an impassioned plea from the priestess who asks for the golden statue, with precious jewels as its eyes, to be left unharmed. Iskandar had ordered it to be dismantled but moved by her passion and beauty, he agreed to spare it. Placed right at at the end of the Khamsah, this painting has a special significance, as pointed out by Barbara Brend (Akbar's Khamsa, p. 61). Iskandar is compared by implication with the Mughal emperor Akbar who had taken Kandahar from the Safavids of Iran without bloodshed in April 1595, while this manuscript was still in the process of completion. Akbar’s interest in other religions apart from Islam, exemplified by the establishment of his own syncretic faith, the Din-i ilahi (Divine Faith) in 1582, parallels here Iskandar’s own role as a tolerant philosopher-king.

Sadly, in the exhibition we could only display one opening from each manuscript, so to give a flavour of the whole volume, I have described some further examples here.

Iskandar and Nushabah  Or 12208  f.244b
Iskandar with Nushabah, queen of the women-only city of Barda, in today’s Azerbaijan. Iskandar had visited the queen in disguise, but she immediately exposed him as an imposter by presenting him with his own portrait which she had had painted earlier. Reprimanding him, she nevertheless forgave him and they feasted together before he went on his way.
Artist, Bhura. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f. 244v)
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Iskandar receives the envoy of Kaid of Hind  Or.12208  f.254r
Not wishing to engage in war, King Kayd of Hind offered Iskandar four gifts as tribute: his daughter in marriage, his all-knowing philosopher, his personal physician and his never-emptying goblet. This scene shows his envoy's reception at Iskandar's camp. Iskandar accepted Kayd's gifts and so bloodshed was avoided.
Artist, Dharamdas. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f. 254r)
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Mani paints a dead dog. Or.12208  f. 262v
The story of Mani the 3rd-century founder of Manichaeism who was also famous as an artist, is told as an interlude in a contest between the artists of Chin and Rum. Hearing that the prophet Mani was on his way to China, the Chinese, to discourage him, created a false reservoir out of crystal. When the thirsty Mani placed his earthenware drinking vessel on it, it broke. To prevent others from doing the same, Mani, pictured here with his tools, painted the decaying corpse of a dead dog on the surface. Through this action and his wisdom, Nizami tells us, Mani made many converts.
Artist, Sur Gujarati. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.262v)
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Khizr washes his horse in the Water of Life. Or.12208  f.281r
As Iskandar’s power and dominions increased, so too did his preoccupation with dying. Searching for immortality, his journey led him into the Land of Darkness in an unsuccessful search for the Water of Life. Nizami gives three different accounts of the search for the Water of Life, which he refers to as Zoroastrian, Byzantine, and Arab versions. Pictured here is the so-called Zoroastrian version in which Iskandar gave the prophet Khizr his grey horse – a gift from the ruler of Chin – and sent him into the Darkness with a special stone which would light up and reveal the fountain. Khizr located it, drank and washed himself and his horse, but when they had finished, the fountain disappeared.
Artist, Kanak Singh Chela. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.281r)
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Aflatun charms the wild animals to sleep with his music. Or.12208  f.298r
This illustration comes in the Iqbalnamah, the second of the two books of the Iskandarnamah, which describes Iskandar's prophetic mission. In this episode, after solitary reflection in a barrel (echoes of Diogenes), Aflatun (Plato) obtained full comprehension of the music of the spheres and created an instrument whereby he could make all animals sleep and then rouse them again to consciousness. The scene itself is reminiscent of hunting scenes in which Akbar surveys his catch, as for example on the doublure of the binding of this same volume.
Artist, Madhu. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.298r)
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Iskandar and the 7 philosophers
Here Alexander is depicted as a philosopher-king and questions the origin of the universe from his seven philosophers: Valens, Apollonius, Socrates, Porphyry, Hermes and Plato. Having listened to each in turn, he declared that, in view of their contradictory opinions, the only certainty could be that there was no creation without a creator. By resorting to enlightenment rather than reason, Iskandar was acknowledged as supremely wise and thereby achieved prophethood.
Artist, Nanha. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.305r)
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Iskandar rides through the desert of death. Or.12208  f. 312v
Despatched on a prophetic mission by the angel Srosh, Iskandar explored the Western regions and at the edge of the world encountered a shore where there were many coloured stones, blue, red, yellow and black, each weighing about five to ten pounds. If a person looked at one of these stones, he laughed so much that he died. Iskandar ordered the rocks to be covered with cloth and loaded onto 100 camels. Hastening along the shore he used them to build a fortress without doors and covered the exterior with clay to protect passers by. But whoever climbed over to see the interior, would be exposed to the bare rocks and die.
Artist, Bhem Gujarati. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.312v)
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We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

Ursula Sims-Wiliams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library
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Other illustrations in Akbar's Iskandarnamah

  • The invention of the mirror in the presence of Alexander the Great. Artists, Nanha and Shivdas (Walters Ms. W.613, f.16b and f.17a)
  • The death of Darius. Artist, Dharamdas (Walters Ms. W613, f.26b)
  • Alexander the Great enthroned at Persepolis. Artist, Bem Gujarati (Walters Ms. W613, f.34a)
  • The women of Qipchak are persuaded to veil themselves on seeing a veiled talisman. Artist, Mukund (Or.12208, f.266v)
  • The Russian champion who tore off an elephant's trunk. Artist, Farrukh Chela (Or.12208, f.273r)
  • Maria, the Copt trained in the art of alchemy consulted by other alchemists. Artist, Sanwala. Lahore, 1593-5 (Or.12208, f.294r)

Further reading

Barbara Brend, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Niẓāmī. London: British Library, 1995.
J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire. London: The British Library, 1912, pp. 48-55.
Haila Manteghi, Alexander the Great in the Persian Tradition: History, Myth and Legend in Medieval Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2018.

Related posts

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[1] Owen Cornwall, Alexander and the Persian Cosmopolis, 1000-1500, PhD thesis Columbia Unversity, 2016, pp. 91-9.
[2] Naindeep Singh Chann, “Lord of the Auspicious Conjunction: Origins of the Ṣāḥib-QirānIran and the Caucasus 13 (2009) 93-110

19 December 2022

A Baniya Letter from Surat

Today's blog post looks at a mischaracterized letter shedding light on the relationships between South Asian merchants and European powers in the 17th century.

Text in Arabic script written in black ink on a sheet of dark beige paper with repeated patterns of small and large green plants with three fronds
A full view of the petition included in Thomas Hyde's letters. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
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The letter forms a part of the papers of the celebrated Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), Professor of Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford, and eastern interpreter at the court. Hyde misstates in his covering note that it is “A Persian Petition to the King of Cambaia”. It is in reality a petition (‘arzdasht) written by three baniya merchants of Surat to the rulers of England in January 1655.

A text in black ink in Latin script written on the top two-thirds of a blue sheet of paper
The contents of Royal MS 16 B, indicating the fifth item as "A Persian Petition to the King of Cambaia". (Royal MS 16.B.XXI)
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The petition is headed Allah-o-Akbar, which is somewhat unusual. It is written on behalf of Cauth, Tulsidas and Benidas, humble merchants of Surat, to the Padshah and other high authorities at the Foot of the Caliphate (pa-yi khilafat) in England. They state that the Padshah must be aware that for some years now, the humble petitioners have been living under the protection of the Company, as this is a fact well-known to everyone. The Padshah of Hindustan (as they term the Mughal emperor) too knows that they are the servants of the English (naukaran-i angrez).

There is a short section referring to some past disputes between the Dutch and the English, in which some people had been killed. There were negotiations, in which it was demanded that several brokers (dallals) be handed over. After much argument, it was agreed that some guarantees (qauls) should be produced by the two brokers, and that normal trading affairs (sauda) should be resumed. In the context of this agreement, the Dutch commander had given over a written document, which was to be transmitted to the Padshah in England.

Text in Arabic script written in black ink on a sheet of dark beige paper with repeated patterns of small and large green plants with three fronds
A detail of the text of the petition. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
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This brings us to the main question addressed in the petition. An English ship (jahaz-i angrez) had been seized by the Dutch, and they had taken an amount of Rs 115,549 in cash and goods (naqd-o-jins) from it, some of which belonged to Surat merchants including the petitioners. But the Dutch and their commander in Surat were refusing to answer for their role in this. It was pointed out to them that the custom in Hindustan was that looted goods were returned to traders who were third parties in the conflict. But the Dutch were refusing to listen to reason. The Dutch commander had even told the Surat petitioners who had suffered losses that since they were clients of the English, they should weep and wail with their masters in England.

The petitioners had then taken the matter to the local authorities (mutasaddis) of Surat. But they too had refused to intervene in the matter and said that the matter should be taken to the English Padshah. On account of all this, the present ‘arzdasht is being sent, in the hope that the matter will be properly resolved. It is known that the English Padshah is just, and those unfortunate people who appeal to him will find favor.

The document ends with wishes for peace.

A text in both Latin and Gujarati scripts written in black ink on a dark beige piece of paper. The pattern of alternating green large and small plants found on the reverse of the sheet is partially visible.
Detail from the reverse of the petition. (Allah-o-Akbar, India, January 1655. Royal MS 16.B.XII)
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On the reverse, we find three Gujarati signatures with their rough English equivalents:

Thus: Coth Thakur [Gujarati] – Chout Tauker

Thus: Tulsidas Parekh [Gujarati] – Tulcidas Parrack

Thus: Venidas Visangji [Gujarati] – Benidas Bissuingee

Signed by them on Swally Marine

January 26th, 1655.

image from collections.rmg.co.uk
A portrait of a heavily-armed East India vessel painted by Isaac Sailmaker around 1685. (Royal Museums Greenwich BHC1676)
CC-BY-NC-ND provided graciously by the Royal Museums Greenwich.

This document refers to fallout of the Anglo-Dutch conflict in the Persian Gulf in the first half of 1653, in the course of which the Dutch seized several English ships off Bandar ‘Abbas (or Kamaran). References can be found to this episode in both the English and Dutch factory records. The Surat-based ship in question that was seized was the Supply, which the Dutch renamed Cabo de Jask. Unlike the Blessing from Coromandel, the Supply did not offer resistance and negotiated its surrender. Its goods, like those of the other seized ships, were rapidly sold by the Dutch on the Persian Gulf markets and amounted according to the Dutch records to 140,336 florins. The earlier episode of violence referred to may be one of several involving the Dutch at Surat in the late 1640s. The Dutch commander who dismissed the pleas of the Surat merchants was Gerard Pelgrom. All three merchants are known to us from references in the English factory records, which also contain at least one other letter (in English, with a Gujarati signature) written by Tulsidas to the Company. In the published edition of the factory records, the name of the third merchant is usually rendered as Chot or Chota, when it is clearly written as “Cauth” (in Persian) and “Coth” (in Gujarati). Finally, it may be noted that the Surat merchants were possibly unaware that there was no longer a king (or Padshah) in England at the time of the Commonwealth and Cromwell's regime.
 
Dr. Muzaffar Alam (University of Chicago) and Dr. Sanjay Subrahmanyam (UCLA)
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12 December 2022

Hampi: Photography and Archaeology of southern India

Currently on display at the British Library is the display Hampi: Photography and Archaeology in southern India. This exhibition features some of the earliest photographs of the site taken by W. H. Pigou in the 1850, modern photographs of the site by South Asian pre-eminent photographer Raghu Rai, alongside architectural drawings produced by the Vijayanagara Research Project under the guidance of John Fritz and George Michell between 1980-2001.

Hampi front entrance
Visitors at the British Library's Hampi display located in the Front Entrance Hall, October 2022. Photographed by Malini Roy.

The Hindu kingdom Vijayanagara (meaning ‘City of Victory’) established its capital at Hampi in southern India in about 1336. Located along the banks of the Tungabhadra River, temple complexes, palaces and administrative buildings were built amongst the rugged landscape of granite boulders. After flourishing for over 200 years, in 1565, Vijayanagara fell to a rival kingdom and Hampi was abandoned. Hampi’s ongoing religious significance and its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 mean it continues to attract worshipers and tourists to this day. These photographs, taken between 1857 and 1970, capture the archaeological site of Hampi. The British Library’s archives provide a lens on the archaeological legacy and the research activities that have played a role in preserving the city’s cultural heritage.

The exhibition features a select number of photographs, that documents the extensive complex's architectural heritage. 

Virupakshah temple
Gopura of the Virupaksha temple, Vijayanagara. Photographed by William H. Pigou, 1857. British Library, Photo 1000/10(1096).

William H. Pigou (1818-56) was an amateur photographer appointed as the Government Photographer for the Bombay Presidency from 1856 to 1857. He was one of the earliest photographers to visit Vijayanagara and document the Virupaksha temple that is situated on the banks of the river.

With the arrival of photography by early the 1850s, Pigou relied on calotypes, a new printing process, to make multiple prints from a single waxed paper negative. He photographed the Virupaksha temple from various angles to document the entrance tower (gopura) and the high exterior walls. None of his photographs captured the entire length of the rectangular temple complex. 

Pigou's photograph of Narasimha
Photograph of Narasimha, by William H. Pigou in 1857. Modern digital image from the original waxed paper negative, 2022. British Library, Neg 1000/9(1005)

One of the more complicated sculptures to photograph at the site is that of Narasimha, the man-lion avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu This colossal sculpture was commissioned in 1528, by King Krishnadevaraya (ruled 1510-29).  Carved out of a single granite boulder, it measures 6.7 metres in height. Historic photographs including those by Pigou document the damage sustained to the sculpture when the kingdom fell in 1556. In the 1980s, the Archaeological Survey of India restored the figure by rebuilding Narasimha’s legs in the meditative lotus position. 

Neill_Lotus Mahal
Vijayanagara pavilion in the palace. Photographed by Andrew Charles Brisbane Neill, 1857. British Library, Photo 965/1(85)

The exhibition also features photographs by other early photographers to the site including Edmund David Lyon and Andrew Neill.  The site, which is over 25 square kilometers, consists of countless temples, shrines, pavilions and administrative buildings that was used and built by the Vijayanagara kings. The Lotus Mahal, a two storied pavilion, is part of the royal centre of Vijayanagara and is one of the best preserved buildings to date. The Lotus Mahal is a two-storied pavilion with large cusped archways; the architectural design allows air to flow and to regulate temperature. Vijayanara's royal centre also includes elephant stables, granaries and temples for the use of the royal family. Andrew Neill was a photographer and part of the Royal Artillery. He visited the site in 1856.

In the exhibition, historic 19th century photographs are featured alongside the modern works by Raghu Rai from the 1970s. Raghu (which are in copyright and can be viewed here). These include his iconic views of The way to Virupaksha temple through the Hampi bazaarBadavalinga - a monolithic linga, and Excavations and conservation being done by the Archaeological Survey of India

  VRP_drawing
Sculptural mouldings at the Raghunatha temple complex. Pen-and-ink on acetate, after Helen Wilson, 1984. Copyright held by the Vijayanagara Research Project. British Library, VRP 001/54/32/1.

Additionally, the exhibition draws from the Library's extensive archive of the Vijayanagara Research Project. Two architectural drawings supplement the photographic records, as these pen-and-ink drawings document the extensive research and dedicated work of architectural historians to systematically document every building or sculptural fragment. One example is this pen-and-ink drawing after the original pencil drawing by Helen Wilson, one of the many students working on the site during the 1980s. This work features the sculptural mouldings at the Raghunatha temple complex. This temple is associated with the Sanskrit epic Ramayana and features sculptural reliefs throughout showing Rama and Sita. The temple complex is located on Malyavanta Hill. The drawing demonstrates how architectural historians were in situ and illustrated the sculptural mouldings on the lower plinth of the south entrance gopura (tower gateway). Visible is an image of Rama holding a bow carved into a pillar.

For more on the exhibition and opening times, please consult: Hampi: Photography and Archaeology in southern India - The British Library (bl.uk)

31 October 2022

An Early Modern Khavarnamah from Bijapur

This week’s post is by guest writer Namrata B. Kanchan, PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation examines the courtly Dakhni literary and manuscript culture between 1500 CE and 1700 CE.

One of the most ambitious illustrated manuscript projects of the seventeenth-century ʻAdil Shahi court of Bijapur is the British Library manuscript IO Islamic 834, the Khavarnamah (Book of the East) written in the local vernacular of Dakhni in the nastaʻliq script. Originally composed in Persian by the poet Ibn Husam and completed in 1426 CE, this epic masnavi (narrative poetry), details the heroic exploits of the Shi‘a Imam ‘Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Like Firdausi’s epic Shahnamah (ca. 970-1010), various copies of the Persian Khavarnamah (usually called the Khavarannamah) were richly illustrated. In general, it was Shi‘a patrons who commissioned copies of this work across the Persianate world.

1. ‘Ali with Jamshed Shah
‘Ali with Jamshed Shah, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, ca. 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 75r).
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In Bijapur, Sultana Khadija (d. 1688), the wife of Sultan Muhammad ʻAdil Shah (r. 1626-1656) and the daughter of Golconda’s Qutb Shahi king Muhammad Qutb Shah (r. 1612-1626) commissioned the illustrated manuscript in the Deccan in the early half of the seventeenth century. She diverged, however, from the previous manuscript tradition by commissioning the poet Kamal Khan “Rustami” to compose the work in the regional vernacular language Dakhni, a regional form of Hindavi, instead of Persian.

The introductory page of the Dakhni masnavi  the Khavarnamah  Bijapur  1649 CE
The introductory page of the Dakhni masnavi, the Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 1v).
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Rustami emerges as an important poet with deep connections to the Bijapur court. In the Khavarnamah’s epilogue, the poet provides a brief biography in prose where he states that he had descended from a long line of  ʻAdil Shahi courtiers and his father, Ismaʻil Khattat Khan had also served the Bijapur rulers. After assuming the pen-name of Rustami, the poet composed several ghazals (odes) and qasidahs (panegyric) in Dakhni and Persian.

One reason for the choice of vernacular in this manuscript is that by the early seventeenth century, Dakhni had become a popular literary language especially in the narrative genre of the masnavi. Moreover, previous Dakhni poets, often multilingual ones like Rustami, attempted to elevate the status of this vernacular by translating or refashioning works from the translocal Indic and Persian literary spheres. The Dakhni Khavarnamah forms part of this effort. Thus, the translation of an illustrated Shi‘a epic, evinces an endeavour to showcase Dakhni as a serious literary language and Bijapur as a major Shi‘a domain.

‘Ali with Mir Siyaf
‘Ali with Mir Siyaf, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 379v).
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Apart from the choice of language, this original source manuscript is unique for several reasons. Sultana Khadija, also known as Bari Sahib (grande dame), is the first known female patron of a Dakhni work. Apart from the commission of the Khavarnamah, two seals connected with her appear on a Kalila va Dimnah manuscript (Acc. no. 71.187), housed currently at the National Museum, New Delhi (Akhtar, p. 44 and following plate). While one is unquestionably Sultana Khadija’s seal and carries her name, the second, reading Allah Muhammad ʻAli is identical to that in the British Library Khavarnamah and is possibly another of her seals, an expression of her religious belief.

4. Khadija's seal
Possibly Khadija’s seal in the British Library Khavarnamah, reconstructed from a damaged impression on folio 2r and the reversed mirror image preserved on the facing page. Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834). Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams
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A vital player in Adil Shahi politics, Sultana Khadija was economically independent and one source of her income was the revenue she received from a coastal province, which also included a Dutch-operated factory in Vengurla (Kruijtzer, p. 231). In 1656, she assumed the position of regent for her son when her husband died. As regent, she controlled court politics and had dealings with the Dutch on India’s east coast as well as the Portuguese on the west coast. Once her regency ended in 1661, she wrote to the Dutch to undertake a trip to Mecca for Hajj and found place aboard a ship travelling west. She also embarked on a trip to visit holy Shi‘a pilgrimage sites and allegedly died in Yemen in 1688 (Kruijtzer, pp. 231-2).

A distinctive feature of this monumental manuscript (543 folios measuring 14 x 11 inches) is that it is richly illustrated with images on practically every page with some illustrations occupying the whole page. Depicted in rich and vibrant hues that are characteristic of the Deccan, these images illustrate the various adventures and heroic deeds of Hazrat ‘Ali and his companions Malik and Abu al-Mihjan.

4. ʻAli with Malik and others
 ‘Ali with Malik, Abu al-Mihjan (spelt as Maʻjan in the manuscript), Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 8r).
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An interesting observation is that ‘Ali’s face is veiled consistently throughout this manuscript although most other copies of the Khavarnamah chose not to conceal his face (f. 75 r.). This is evident from a near contemporary copy of the manuscript in Persian at the British Library (BL Add. 19766).

Furthermore, just as the text emerges in the local Dakhni form, some of the images also carry a local flavour that depict encounters with yogis and Hindu kings.

7. Jamshed Shah with a Hindu Yogi
Jamshed Shah with a Hindu Yogi, Khavarnamah, Bijapur, 1649 CE, (British Library IO Islamic 834, f. 123r).
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The Bijapur Khavarnamah’s scale and illustration programme thus attest to the popularity of Dakhni literature in the seventeenth-century Deccan sultanate courts. Furthermore, the patronage of this manuscript perhaps could also be interpreted as an act of Shi‘a piety. It would be interesting to compare this manuscript to other copies of the Persian Ḳhavarnamah to see either similarities or points of divergence in the narrative structure and illustrative programme.

I would like to thank Ursula Sims-Williams for providing important insight into Khadija Sultana’s seals and for identifying the seal in the Khavarnamah with the one in the National Museum.

Namrata B. Kanchan,  University of Texas at Austin
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Further Reading

Primary Source
Rustamī Bījāpūrī, K̲h̲āvar nāmah / muṣannafah-yi Kamāl K̲h̲ān̲ Rustamī Bījāpūrī; murattabah-yi Shaik̲h̲ Cānd ibn Ḥusain Aḥmadnagrī. Karācī: Taraqqīyi Urdū Borḍ, 1968. Online edition at Rekhta Books

Secondary Sources
Akhtar, Nasim, and others “Kalila wa Dimna,” in Islamic art of India. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2002, p. 44 and following plate.
Kruijtzer, Gijs. “Baṛī Ṣāḥib bint Muḥammad Quṭb Shāh,” in Christian Muslim Relations: A Bibliographic History, eds. David Thomas and John Chesworth. Leiden: Brill, 2017, pp. 231-7.
Overton, Keelan (ed.). Iran and the Deccan: Persianate Art, Culture, and Talent in Circulation, 1400-1700. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020.
Overton, Keelan. “Book Culture, Royal Libraries, and Persianate Painting in Bijapur, Circa 1580­‒1630.” Muqarnas 33.1 (2016): pp. 91–154.

24 October 2022

Alexander the Great in Firdawsi's Book of Kings

The legendary life of Alexander the Great is the subject of the British Library’s new exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth which opened on Friday 21 October. A visual feast of stories spanning more than 2000 years, it centres on the Alexander Romance originally composed in Greek around the third century AD and shares narratives from East and West side by side in more than twenty languages.  One of the most richly illustrated sources is the Persian Shahnamah (Book of Kings) completed by the poet Firdawsi in 1010 AD. There are no less than fourteen copies of this national epic in the exhibition ranging from the beginning of the fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. A selection of these is shown below. While the details sometimes differ from the Alexander Romance, the Shahnamah tells the same stories in a common context.

The history of Alexander in the Shahnamah begins with a peace treaty between King Darab of Persia and Filqus (Philip) of Greece in which Filqus’ daughter Nahid is married to the Persian king. Though she outshone all others in her beauty, she proved to suffer from bad breath and the marriage broke down irretrievably. Nahid was sent home to her father, rejected, but unknowingly pregnant with Alexander (Iskandar or Sikandar in Persian) who was subsequently brought up as Philip’s son and heir. Meanwhile King Darab took another wife who gave birth to Dara (Darius) who would succeed his father before being ultimately defeated in battle by his half-brother Alexander.

1. Iskandar and the dying Dara  Bombay
The death of Dara, one of the most frequently illustrated subjects in the Shahnamah, in a hand-coloured lithograph edition published in Bombay in 1849.  British Library, 14807.h.4
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Three decisive battles took place in the last of which, at Gaugamela in northern Iraq in 331 BC, the Persian army was irrevocably defeated. Dara escaped but was mortally wounded by two of his own men. Iskandar, who had wanted Dara alive, was dismayed when he found him. Cradling Dara’s head on his knees, he promised to fulfil Dara’s dying wishes: to look after his family, to marry his daughter Roshanak (Roxana) and to safeguard the Zoroastrian religion.

Indeed Iskandar married Roshanak with much pomp and ceremony and then moved on to India where he conquered King Kayd of Hind by peaceful means. As part of their agreement he received four gifts: King Kayd’s daughter in marriage, his all-knowing seer to advise him, his physician who could cure any disease and his never-emptying goblet.

2. ISkandar and the daughter of King Kayd
Iskandar marries the daughter of King Kayd of Hind (India). Sultanate India, 1438. British Library, Or.1403, f. 318r
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Moving on, Iskandar challenged another Indian ruler, King Fur (Porus). On this occasion a fierce battle took place. Iskandar had been forewarned about Fur’s invincible army of elephants and to counter them, recruited more than 1200 blacksmiths who forged 1000 iron horses and riders on wheels. These were filled with oil and set alight at the head of the advancing army. The whole army was put to rout leaving Iskandar to kill Fur in single combat.

3. Battle with Fur of Hind
The battle between Iskandar and Fur. Artist: Kamal, Mughal India, about 1616. British Library, Add MS 5600, f. 361v
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From India Iskandar travelled in search of riches and new experiences. He went to Mecca, Egypt and Andalus — in this context most likely a city in western Asia representing  ‘the West’— where he encountered Queen Qaydafah (Candace in the Greek Alexander Romance). Iskandar approached her court disguised as a messenger, but she already had a portrait of him and so immediately recognised him. His deception exposed, Iskandar feared for his life, but instead was admonished and sent safely on his way. A similarly peaceful encounter took place with the Amazons, the virgin warriors of Harum, located in the Caucasus.

4. The women of Harum
Iskandar’s peaceful visit to the woman-only city of Harum. Iran, 1536. British Library Add MS 15531, f. 345r
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Travelling further Iskandar encountered the philosophical Brahmans, people with heads on their chests and without bones, dragons and all manner of mythical creatures. He fought battles in China and against the Russians, and constructed a wall to contain the barbarous peoples of Gog and Magog.

5. ISkandar kills a dragon
Iskandar kills a dragon by feeding it cow-hides stuffed with poison and oil. Isfahan, 1614. British Library, Add MS 16761, f. 190v
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Increasingly, however, Iskandar became pre-occupied with his own mortality. Would he ever see his native land again, when would he die? Seeking, but never finding, the waters of everlasting life he met the angel of death Israfil who told him his time would come. Then at the edge of the world he came to the talking tree which had two trunks, one male and one female. At midday the male trunk spoke, foretelling the end of his fourteen-year rule, and at nightfall its female counterpart announced: ‘Death will come soon.’

6. Iskandar and the talking tree
Iskandar and the talking tree. Shiraz, c. 1420-25. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford MS Ouseley, Add. 176, f. 311v
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Now at the end of his journey, Iskandar returned to Babylon where he was greeted with more omens of death: a stillborn child with a lion’s head, a human chest and shoulders, and a cow’s tail and hooves.

7. Iskandar receives an omen of his death
Iskandar sees an omen of his imminent death in Babylon. Iran, c. 1300. Chester Beatty, Dublin, Per 104.49.  
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His fate sealed, Iskandar fell ill that very day. He ordered that he should be carried outside and in full view of his soldiers he advised them to live humbly and follow his example. As depicted below, a physician takes his pulse while another is making notes. In the background courtiers and soldiers wipe away their tears.

8. Death of Iskandar
The moment of Iskandar’s death. Qazvin, 1585-6. British Library, Add. MS 27302, f. 414r
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Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth runs until 19 February 2023. It is accompanied by a book of the same title. Edited by Richard Stoneman, it includes nine essays by leading scholars together with images and descriptions of the exhibition items. Tickets are on sale and may be booked on our Events page, and more information can be found on our dedicated exhibition website.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library
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Further Reading

Firdawsi, Shahnamah, trans. Dick Davis, Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, rev. edn. New York: Penguin, 2016.
The Sháhnáma of Firdausí, trans. Arthur George and Edmond Warner, vol 6. London: Routledge, 1912.
Manteghi, Haila, Alexander the Great in the Persian Tradition: History, Myth and Legend in Medieval Iran. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2018.

23 September 2022

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth

Readers may have noticed the new placards and billboards at the British Library announcing Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth which opens exactly four weeks today. Son of Philip II of Macedon and his wife Olympias, the historical Alexander was born in Pella, capital of Macedon in July 356 BC. By July 330 BC he had defeated the Persian army, becoming, at the age of twenty-five, ruler of Asia Minor, pharaoh of Egypt and successor to Darius III, the ‘Great King’ of Persia. During the next seven years, Alexander created an empire that stretched from Greece in the west to beyond the Indus river in the east – before his early death in Babylon aged thirty-two.

Alexander billboard

This exhibition, however, is not about history, but the first of its kind to explore 2,000 years of  storytelling and mythmaking. With objects from 25 countries in 21 languages, it shows how one figure could serve so many purposes, creating shared narratives of universal appeal. The Alexander Romance, composed originally in Greek in the third century AD, was at the heart of this storytelling. But legends also found their way into epic poetry and drama, and more recently into novels, comics, films and video games. You will see examples of all of these in the exhibition.

Out of approximately 140 objects, some eighty-six are from the British Library's collections. To give a taste of what’s in store, I have chosen to highlight a few of the thirty-eight exhibits from our own Asian and African collections.

A Christian Alexander
A Christian Alexander described as ‘enemy of devils’ heads this amulet scroll in the Ethiopian Ge‘ez language. Ethiopia, 18th century? (British Library Or.12859)
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The exhibition is arranged in six sections based around Alexander’s legendary life. After an introduction,  A Conqueror in the Making explores the different versions of Alexander’s origins, his education by the philosopher Aristotle and Bucephalus, his faithful warhorse.

Nahid is presented to Dara
Nahid, daughter of Philip of Macedon, is here married to the Persian emperor as part of a diplomatic alliance. Rejected on account of her bad breath, she was sent home, unknowingly pregnant, to Greece where she gave birth to a son, Alexander. This version of Alexander’s origins saw him, in Persian eyes, as the legitimate heir and successor to the throne. From the Darabnamah (Story of Darab), by Abu Tahir Muhammad Tarsusi, Mughal India, 1580–85 (British Library Or.4615, f. 129r)
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Aristotle instructs a pupil
Aristotle instructs a pupil in the Kitab na‘t al-hayawan (On the Characteristics of Animals). Baghdad?, about 1225 (British Library Or.2784, f. 96r)
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Section three, Building an Empire, describes Alexander’s victory over Darius III of Persia and his expeditions further east to India and China — by the way Alexander did reach India but he never went to China!

Alexander comforts the dying Dara
Alexander comforts the dying Darius and agrees to his final requests in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (Book of Kings). According to one Persian tradition, Darius was in fact his half-brother. Isfahan?, Iran, 1604 (British Library IO Islamic 966, f. 335r)
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Or_12208_f318r_3000_1500Or_12208_f318r_3000_1500
In Kandahar, Alexander was persuaded by a beautiful priestess not to destroy the sacred statue. This copy of the twelfth-century poet Nizami’s Khamsah (Five Poems) was especially commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar who had conquered Kandahar in 1595 while this manuscript was still being copied. The painting would have deliberately invited comparison between Akbar, famous for his religious tolerance, and Alexander. Artists: Mukund and La‘l, Lahore, 1593–95 (British Library Or.12208, ff. 317v–318r)
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In a section on Alexander’s relationships, we introduce the important people in his life: his wives, the powerful women he encountered, his general Hephaestion and the eunuch slave Bagoas.

Alexander's wedding to Roxana
The wedding of Alexander and Darius’ daughter, Roxana. From Firdawsi's Shahnamah (Book of Kings), Qazvin, Iran, about 1590–95 (British Library Add MS 27257, f. 326v)
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The Mythical Quest is the most fantastical section. Here Alexander travels through strange lands inhabited by people with faces in their chests, sirens, griffins and dragons. His journey leads him to the ends of the earth, into the skies above and to the bottom of the ocean, always seeking new experiences and the key to immortality.

Coptic fragment of Alexander Romance
This Coptic fragment of the Alexander Romance describes Alexander setting off to explore the Land of Darkness. When a mysterious voice predicted his imminent death, he turned back bringing with him some objects he had gathered in the dark. These later turned out to be diamonds. Atripe, Upper Egypt, 14th century (British Library Or.3367/2)
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The final section, Journey’s End, describes Alexander’s return to Babylon and the mystery of his subsequent death. His body was transported on a magnificent carriage to Egypt, where it was eventually placed in a mausoleum at Alexandria. The tomb is now lost, but his final resting place is still a subject of debate.

Iskandar's funeral procession
This popular prose version of Alexander’s life reflects a Persian tradition. In accordance with his final wishes Alexander’s coffin was carried through his dominions with his arm hanging loose to show that he travelled to the grave empty-handed. From the Iskandarnamah (Story of Alexander) by Manuchihr Khan Hakim, Tehran, 1857–58 (British Library 14787.k.8)
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Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth opens on 21 October. It will be accompanied by a book of the same title. Edited by Richard Stoneman, it includes nine essays by leading scholars together with images and descriptions of the exhibition items. During the next few months we’ll be writing blogs about several of the items in the exhibition, and also some which we were not able to include. Meanwhile tickets are already on sale and may be booked on our Events page.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
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We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.


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