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212 posts categorized "South East Asia"

12 December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

05 December 2019

Three fish with one head: (1) Sufi sources from Southeast Asia

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This two-part blog post will examine a striking motif of three interlocking fish with one head, which is found in widely varied locations all over the world. This first post looks at examples in Javanese mystical manuscripts; in the second post, the motif will be traced from ancient Egypt through medieval France to modern Japan.

The motif of three fish with one head is familiar from manuscripts on mystical practices from Java, where it is referred to in Javanese as iwak telu sirah sanunggal, ‘three fish with a single head’.  All known examples occur in texts relating to the Shaṭṭārīyah brotherhood, a Sufi order founded in Persia by Shaykh Sirajuddin Abdullah Shattar (d. 1406) and which spread to Southeast Asia through disciples of the eminent Meccan teacher Shaykh Ahmad al-Qushāshī (d. 1660).  Presented here are a number of examples from Javanese manuscripts in the British Library and also from manuscripts still held in Java digitised through the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme.

The earliest dateable examples of this motif from Java are in two manuscripts from the collection of Col. Colin Mackenzie, who served in the British administration of Java from 1811 to 1813. Both manuscripts containing Shaṭṭārīyah silsilah or spiritual genealogies, one of which is dated 1790, originate from Mataraman in Batavia, present-day Jakarta, situated on the north-west coast of Java. 

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Three fish with one head, in a Javanese manuscript from Mataraman, Batavia, containing mystical texts, dated AH 1205 (AD 1790/1).  British Library, MSS Jav 77, f. 16v   noc

Two later manuscripts containing this motif are from Lamongan on the north coast of East Java, both of which have been digitised through the Endangered Archives programme.  The manuscripts are held in the Islamic boarding school Pondok Pesantren Tarbiyyah al-Thalabah at Kranji, near the tomb of Sunan Drajat, one of the nine wali credited with bringing Islam to Java.  In both the Batavia and Lamongan manuscripts the diagram is used to illustrate the Oneness (tawhid) of God, by visualising graphically the unity of the first three stages of the ‘seven grades of being’ (martabat tujuh), and making this reference explicit through accompanying captions:  aḥadīyah - Allāh / waḥdah - Muḥammad / wāḥidīyah - Adam

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Three fish with one head, shown on the left-hand page, in a manuscript  (EAP061/2/44-52) containing texts of Sufism, dated in the Javanese era 5 wulan Sawal tahun jawi 1854 (10 May 1924). Pondok Pesantren Tarbiyyah al-Thalabah, Kranji, Lamongan, East Java, EAP061/2/50, f. 34a

The second manuscript from Lamongan (EAP061/2/55-61), which is undated but probably also dates from around the late 19th or early 20th century, has a very finely executed drawing of the three fish with one head.  In contrast to nearly all known diagrams of this motif where the three fish are depicted identically, in the undated Lamongan manuscript, while the two fish labelled Muhammad and Adam are decorated with delicate scales, the fish labelled Allah is left plain and unadorned, most likely to reflect the 'emptiness' associated with the first of the seven grades of being, aḥadīyah.

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Three fish with one head in a manuscript containing Sufi texts, ca. late 19th c.; this is the only known example where the three fish are differentiated from one another visually. Pondok Pesantren Tarbiyyah al-Thalabah, Kranji, Lamongan, East Java, EAP061/2/59, f.29b   [This page has been rotated through 180 degrees to allow the reading of the Javanese text.]

According to Mahrus eL-Mahwa, who has carried out a study of this motif in the Cirebon region of north Java, there are three late-19th century manuscripts which are all copies of a text of the Shaṭṭārīyah wa-Muḥammadīyah Sufi order closely linked to the Kaprabonan court (one of the three princely houses of Cirebon which emerged from the sultanate in 1677 following a succession dispute).  In all three Cirebon manuscripts, each fish is labelled with a different descriptor of the stage represented: zat ‘ibarat Allāh - ṣifat ‘ibarat rūḥ/Muḥammad - af‘āl ‘ibarat jasad/Adam (Essence symbolising God / attributes symbolising the soul/Muḥammad / Deeds symbolising the body/Adam).  It was thus probably one such Cirebon manuscript which was cited by the scholar Karel Steenbrink in his discussion of how simple figures and diagrams were used in the Malay world to elucidate ideas about the mystical reality: ‘A quite peculiar example of this style of summarising the totality of being is that of the three fishes, as found in a 19th century Malay tract on the unity of being, according to the Shattariyah brotherhood, composed in Java. The three fishes were given the names of Essence of Allah, Deeds (af’āl) and Attributes (sifāt). The drawing symbolises the unity of the original essence and the first emanations within the divine being … When looked upon from the tails, the figures seem to be different, but in their heads, they are identical. Difference and change have disappeared as so often in the neo-Platonic reasoning that has since long dominated Islamic mystical thinking about God’ (Steenbrink 2009: 69-79).

Mahrus eL-Mawa has suggested that the iwak telu sirah sanunggal diagram has a particular association with the Shaṭṭārīyah order in Cirebon, where it functioned as a suluk or an aid to mystical practice.  There may be a particular association with court culture in Cirebon: the motif of three fish with one head is currently the symbol of the Kacirebonan, the fourth and youngest princely house of Cirebon, which was founded in 1808, while Mahrus’s research also reveals that the past five heads of the Kaprabonan court have all been initiated into the Shaṭṭārīyah wa-Muḥammadīyah order. 

 HUT Kacirebonan lambang
Three fish with one head as the symbol of the Kacirebonan court, Cirebon, founded in 1808. Source: Cirebon Insight, 3 June 2011

The motif does appear to be particularly strongly associated with Cirebon: in addition to its appearance in manuscripts it also occurs on batik, wood carvings  and glass paintings.  The ‘three fish with one head’ also appears frolicking alongside ‘ordinary’ fish in two separate scenes in a delightful illustrated late 18th-century Javanese manuscript of the Serat Damar Wulan probably from Cirebon; this is the only known appearance of the motif in a non-mystical manuscript, and may reflect a deep entrenchment in the repertoire of local artists . 

MSS Jav 89  f.41r-det
The ‘three-in-one’ fish depicted with soldiers crossing a river, in a Javanese manuscript of the Serat Damar Wulan,  late 18th century. The manuscript was given to the India Office Library in 1815 by Lt. Col. Raban, who had been Resident of Cirebon from 1812 to 1814.  British Library, MSS Jav 89, f. 41r  noc

Yet the origin and meaning of this motif remains obscure. Even within Cirebon the diagram of three fish with one head is not found in all Shaṭṭārīyah manuscripts, while outside Java, apart from one manuscript in Malay from the Lanao area of Mindanao, the diagram is not encountered in any Shaṭṭārīyah manuscripts from other parts of the Malay world, for example from Aceh or west Sumatra, or in mystical manuscripts in Arabic, Turkish or Persian from the broader Islamic world.   The reason may lie in differing lines of transmission of Shaṭṭārīyah teachings, as traced through the spiritual genealogies (silsilah) contained in manuscripts.  A recent detailed philological study of Shaṭṭārīyah silsilah in Aceh, Java and Mindanao by Oman Fathurahman (2016) reveals four main lines of descent from Aḥmad Qushāshī, most notably demonstrating that not all adherents traced their spiritual genealogy from the famous Acehnese scholar and Sufi Shaykh ‘Abd al-Ra’ūf of Singkil (d. 1661), who is usually associated with the introduction of the Shaṭṭārīyah to the Malay world. 

The proposition that the diagram of ‘three fish with one head’ used to illustrate the Unity of God is linked with one particular descent line of the Shaṭṭārīyah would explain why this motif is only found in a small number of manuscripts found along the north coast of Java, particularly centred on Cirebon.  Nonetheless it remains puzzling that the motif of three fish with one head is unknown in either manuscript or other material cultural manifestations in other parts of the archipelago and even in mainland Southeast Asia, when, as will be shown in the second part of this blog post, it has in fact an exceptionally long history in many far-flung parts of the world, dating back thousands of years. 

MSS Jav 89  f.3v det
The ‘three fish with one head' depicted clustered around the anchor of a ship, at the start of a Javanese manuscript of the Serat Damar Wulan, probably from Cirebon, late 18th century.  British Library, MSS Jav 89, f. 3v  noc

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 Kawashima, 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.
Mahrus eL-Mawa, Suluk iwak telu sirah sanunggal: dalam naskah 'Syatariyah wa Muhammadiyah' di Cirebon. [Paper presented at: Simposium Internasional ke-16 Pernaskahan Manassa, Perpustakaan Nasional RI, 26-28 September 2016].  Jakarta.
Oman Fathurahman, Shattariyah silsilah in Aceh, Java, and the Lanao area of Mindanao.  Tokyo: Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 2016.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Head, Southeast Asia section  ccownwork

27 November 2019

The Ring of Solomon in Southeast Asia

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Batak manuscript books from north Sumatra, written on tree-bark and then folded accordion-style, are known as pustaha. These generally contain texts on divination and spells, and were compiled by a shaman known in Batak as a datu.  Many pustaha contains magical diagrams in red and black ink, and a symbol that frequently appears in these Batak books is a design of two overlapping squares, the smaller one rotated by 45 degrees and set within the other, with eight looped corners.  The upright square is called bindu matoga, and the diagonal one bindu matogu.  In some pustaha this symbol is shown enclosing a turtle, and is itself surrounded by a snake.

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A small diagram of two overlapping squares, bindu matoga and bindu matogu, can be seen on the open page at the right, alongside a representation of a labyrinth, in a Batak pustaha, containing a text on divination. British Library, Add. 19381

This design of two overlapping squares with eight looped corners is extremely old: the earliest example known is engraved on an amulet from Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus valley, and thus probably dates from not later than ca. 1300 BC, and slightly variant forms are found as threshold designs in India and Sri Lanka.  The symbol was the subject of a very detailed study by Carl Schuster (1975), who showed convincingly that this composition can be linked to the Indian myth of creation, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, when the snake Vasuki was used as a rope to turn the churning pole on the back of a cosmic turtle.  Consistent with this cosmic interpretation is the suggestion by the renowned scholar of Batak manuscripts, Petrus Voorhoeve, that the two bindu represented the four cardinal and four intermediate points, and were therefore a symbol of the earth. 

In mainland Southeast Asia, the design is widely found in esoteric contexts in Thai and Khmer manuscripts, particularly associated with yantras or magical symbols that were often used as tattooes or drawn on amuletic clothing.  Numerous variants of this symbol can be seen in a 19th century manuscript held in the British Library of yantras in Thai in Khom (a variant of Khmer) script, Or. 15568.

Yantras
Several examples of a yantra of two overlapping squares can be seen in a 19th century manuscript in Thai in Khom script, British Library, Or. 15568, f. 6v (detail)

More unusually,the symbol is also seen depicted in a Buddhist text.  In a Thai illustrated manuscript of the Bhuridatta Jataka, one of the Birth Tales of the Buddha, an evil-minded Brahman and snake charmer captures Bhuridatta (the Buddha in one of his former existences as a serpent) using magic spells (mantra). In the picture shown below, the magic symbol (yantra) on the fan and the tattoo on his leg are both accompanied by letters in the sacred Khmer Khom script (with thanks to Jana Igunma for this explanation).

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A scene from the Bhuridatta Jataka, one of the Birth Tales of the Buddha, where the two overlapping squares with eight looped corners can be seen on the fan held by the evil Brahman. British Library, Or. 16710, f. 6.

The overlapping squares also appear frequently in Islamic texts from all over the Malay archipelago. The name of this amulet, and a concise explication of its power, is given in a mystical notebook from west Sumatra said to have belonged to the Padri leader Tuanku Imam Bonjol (1796-1864), now held in Leiden University Library (Cod. Or. 1751).  Shown below is a coloured diagram with the two overlapping squares, containing the word Allāh written twice, and with a pentagram in each of the five compartments, while around it is written the shahādah, the Muslim confession of faith.  Alongside reads the following caption in Malay: Inilah syarh cincin Sulaiman ‘alayhi al-salām, barangsiapa memakai dia rezekinya pun tiada berkurang, tamat, ‘This is an explanation of the ring of Solomon, peace be upon him: whoever wears it will never lack for fortune, the end’.

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‘The ring of Solomon’, from the notebook of Tuanku Imam Bonjol, west Sumatra. Leiden University Library, Cod. Or. 1751, p. 121.

The name ‘Sulaiman’ refers to the Islamic prophet Sulaymān bin Dāwūd, known from earlier Christian and Jewish tradition and sacred texts as King Solomon, son of King David.  Sulaymān is frequently mentioned in the Qur’an, with many descriptions of his esoteric knowledge granted by God: he could understand the speech of birds and animals (Q. 27:16, 19), and he was able to command legions of jinn (Q. 21:82, 34: 12).  His magic power was believed to be effected by the means of a talismanic ring engraved with ‘the most great name’ of God, which in Arabic magical texts and on amulets is represented by seven symbols, ‘the seven seals of Solomon’.  One of the symbols which makes up the ‘seven seals of Solomon’ is a five or six-pointed star.   The star alone, whether a pentagram or hexagram, is a very common amulet encountered in Islamic magic which is itself called ‘the seal of Solomon', khātam Sulaymān.  Very occasionally, the star is eight-pointed, and this may have been a crucial link with the eight-looped symbol, which has become known in Malay as ‘the ring of Solomon', cincin Sulaiman.

Seven seals of Solomon
The 'Seven Seals of Solomon', from an Arabic MS dated 1508 (after H. A. Winkler, Siegel und charaktere in der Muhammedanischen Zauberei.  Berlin und Leipzig: Walter de Gruyter, 1930, p. 115)

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The 'Seven Seals of Solomon' are found on two Malay seals: left, along the bottom of the seal of Sultan Abdul Kadir II of Tallo' in Sulawesi (cat. 1752 #860); right, in the top left border of the seal of Syahbandar Ismail of Pulau Penyengat, Riau, ca. 1870 (cat. 965 #2712)

Although the 'Seven Seals of Solomon' are occasionally found in Malay manuscripts and seals, as shown above, the name of Solomon or Sulaiman is much more closely linked with the 8-looped ‘ring of Solomon’ amulet. This occurs all over Southeast Asia, but it seems to have a particularly strong association with the cultural zone stretching through the islands of Maluku up to the southern Philippines.  In Maranao communities in Mindanao, this symbol is called sising Raja Solaiman, ‘King Solomon’s ring’, and is very commonly used in amulets for driving away evil spirits, for palimonan charms to make the wearer vanish from sight, and for kebel (invulnerability) charms, to protect against other amulets or other sources of danger.  It has also been noted as a marginal design in a Qur’an manuscript from Taraka, Mindanao, and inscribed on a small piece of paper containing a prayer, found inside another Qur'an manuscript from Mindanao.

UVL MSS 13296  (50)
The 'ring of Solomon', inscribed with other symbols above a prayer, found inside a Qur'an manuscript from Mindanao. University of Virginia Library, MSS 13296

#362  #363

The 'ring of Solomon' on two seals of Sultan Mandar Syah of Ternate (r.1648-1675), that on the left inscribed Sultan Mandar Syah (cat. 1838 #362), and that on the right inscribed Sultan Mandar Syah ‘Adil (cat. 1839 #363).  Leiden University Library, K. Acad. 98 (14 & 15).

Thus the label of a powerful Islamic talisman, the 'Seven Seals of Solomon', and of the pentagram known as the ‘Seal of Solomon’, was in the Malay Muslim world applied to an design of two overlapping 8-looped squares, an amulet already deeply embedded throughout the archipelagic world of Southeast Asia, which became known as the 'Ring of Solomon'.

Further reading:

This study of the 'Ring of Solomon' 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.

The cat. numbers of the Malay seals reproduced above refer to: A.T. Gallop, Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia: content, form, context, catalogue. Singapore: NUS Press in association with the British Library, 2019.

Carl Schuster, Comparative observations on some typical designs in Batak manuscripts. Catalogue of Indonesian manuscripts. Part 1. Batak manuscripts, by P.Voorhoeve; pp.52-85. Copenhagen: The Royal Library, 1975.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Head, Southeast Asia section

07 November 2019

British Library receives gift of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka

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On the occasion of the opening of the Buddhism exhibition, the British Library received a gift from the World Tipiṭaka Foundation, Thailand, of the Buddhist canon in the Pāḷi language. The recently published threefold edition consists of 120 volumes altogether. The official handover ceremony on 24 October 2019 was attended by representatives from the World Tipiṭaka Foundation, the Royal Thai Embassy in London and members of the Library’s senior leadership team who expressed their gratitude for this generous donation. All 120 volumes are currently on display in the Buddhism exhibition and will be added to the Library’s Buddhist collections after the exhibition closes on 23 February 2020.

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Representatives from the World Tipiṭaka Foundation, the Royal Thai Embassy in London and British Library staff at the handover ceremony of the threefold edition of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka on 24 October 2019, led by Thanpuying Varaporn Pramoj, President of the World Tipiṭaka Foundation (centre).

The Buddha’s word was initially transmitted orally. After the Buddha’s physical passing and attainment of parinirvana, his disciples and later followers gathered in several councils to recite and preserve the Buddha’s teachings. It is thought that in the first century BCE, during the fourth Buddhist council held in Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, an early version of the Buddhist canon was written down in the Pāḷi language. The Pāḷi canon, or Tipiṭaka, is regarded as the corpus of Buddhist scriptures closest to the original words of the Buddha. It consists of “three baskets” of teachings: the Sutta Piṭaka (discourses of the Buddha), the Vinaya Piṭaka (monastic discipline) and the Abhidhamma Piṭaka (further teachings). Each of the major Buddhist traditions has their own body of scriptures that may differ from others in contents, number and order of texts. In Sanskrit, the corpus of canonical scriptures is known as Tripiṭaka. A complete set of scriptures of the Buddhist canon can include from around 40 volumes in the Theravada tradition to 108 in the Vajrayana tradition and over 200 volumes in the Mahayana tradition. Maunggan gold plates
Text fragments from the Tipiṭaka in Pāḷi , written in Pyu script, on gold plates which were excavated at Maunggan, Burma. Pyu kingdoms, 5th century. British Library, Or.5340/A–B Noc

The oldest extant text fragments of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka in form of Pyu inscriptions on gold plates date back to around the 5th century CE. They were excavated at Maunggan, Burma, in 1897. The Pāḷi Tipiṭaka was transcribed into Sinhalese, Burmese, Khmer, Thai and Northern Thai, Lao, Shan and other scripts of Southeast Asia. In the nineteenth century Western scholars together with monks from Sri Lanka began to Romanise and to translate scriptures of the Tipiṭaka into English and other European languages. The first Romanised publication of the Jātaka tales from the Sutta Piṭaka by V. Fausbøll and R. C. Childers appeared in six volumes between 1875-1896.

Jatakas
Title page of the first volume of a Romanised version of the Jātaka tales published in London in 1875. British Library, 14098.d.23

The world's first printed set of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka was the 39-volume Chulachomklao of Siam Pāḷi Tipiṭaka Edition which was commissioned by King Chulalongkorn Chulachomklao of Siam (Rama V) in B.E.2463 (1893). After six years of preparation under the leadership of the Buddhist monk and scholar Vajirañāna-varorasa, the king presented 1000 sets of this historic edition to Buddhist monasteries all over the kingdom of Siam (now Thailand). More sets were presented later as royal gifts to 260 leading institutions all over the world. These royal gifts of Tipiṭaka in Pāḷi language printed in Syām script are now still held at libraries in 30 countries.

1893 edition
Front cover of a volume of the 1893 Chulachomklao of Siam Pāḷi Tipiṭaka Edition with the royal coat of arms of Siam used by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) embossed in gold. Photo courtesy of the World Tipiṭaka Foundation

In 1956 an international Buddhist Council held in Burma brought 2500 erudite monks of the Theravada tradition together and resulted in the publication of the Chaṭṭhasaṅgīti Council Edition containing the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka in Burmese script. Based on this edition, a Romanised version was edited on the initiative of the Supreme Patriarch of the Sangha of Thailand, Venerable Vajirañānasaṁvara, who himself had attended the Buddhist Council in 1956. The work was published in 2002 by the M. L. Manīratana Bunnag Dhamma Society Fund in Thailand, or present-day, World Tipiṭaka Foundation, comprising of forty volumes with the title Mahāsaṅgīti Tipiṭaka Buddhavasse 2500 (The Great International Tipiṭaka Council Buddhist Era 2500).

Pali notation
Front cover of a volume of the 2016 Queen Sirikit’s Sajjhāya Pāḷi Notation edition with the emblem of Queen Sirikit, the Queen Mother of Thailand. Photograph courtesy of the World Tipiṭaka  Foundation

Based on the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka edition in Roman script that was completed in 2002, the World Tipiṭaka  Foundation published two further 40-volume sets of the Tipiṭaka specifically for the correct pronunciation and recitation of the Pāḷi text. The King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Sajjhāya Pāḷi Phonetic and the Queen Sirikit’s Sajjhāya Pāḷi Notation editions, published in 2016, are the culmination of half a century of international efforts to preserve the words of the Buddha. The use of sound technology made it possible to record the recitation of the Pāḷi texts, amounting to 3,052 hours. A special feature of the digital Sajjhāya recitation is the sound technology reference, which electronically refers to any one of over nine million Pāḷi syllables in the Tipiṭaka to the Kaccāyana Pāḷi grammar, the oldest grammar used in ancient Pāḷi literature. Digital recitation samples are available online at www.sajjhaya.org/node/26.

The presentation of the Romanised version of the Tipiṭaka together with the Sajjhāya Pāḷi Phonetic and the Sajjhāya Pāḷi Notation editions to the British Library as a Dhamma gift from the World Tipiṭaka Foundation heralds a new era of sharing ancient Buddhist wisdom and making the Pāḷi Buddhist canon available to a wider audience in the UK.

DSCF6589 (photo credit@D_Meng)
Display of the threefold edition of the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka in the Buddhism exhibition, with (from left to right) Mrs Thipayasuda Suvanajata, Dr Lalivan Karnchanachari, Mr Phornsake Karnchanachari (Patron of the World Tipiṭaka Foundation) and H.E. Mr Pisanu Suvanajata (Ambassador of Thailand in the UK). Photograph courtesy of D. Meng.

Jana Igunma, Lead Curator, Buddhism exhibition Ccownwork

04 November 2019

Malay Seals from the Islamic World of Southeast Asia

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The Malay world of maritime Southeast Asia has long been connected by political, economic, and cultural networks, the lingua franca of the Malay language, and the faith of Islam.  Malay seals – defined as seals from Southeast Asia or used by Southeast Asians, with  inscriptions in Arabic script –  constitute a treasure trove of data that can throw light on myriad aspects of the history of the Malay world, ranging from the nature of kingship to the form of Islamic thought embraced. As small but highly visible and symbolic emblems of their users, Malay seals were designed to portray the image of the self that the seal holder wished to project, but they were also no less strongly shaped by the prevailing cultural, religious, and artistic norms of their time. It is these multiple layers of identity, both consciously and subconsciously revealed in seals, that are recorded, explored, and interpreted in a new catalogue of Malay seals.

Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia  (Singapore:  NUS Press, in association with the British Library, 2019)
Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia  (Singapore:  NUS Press, in association with the British Library, 2019)

Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia, published in Singapore by NUS Press in association with the British Library, and in Indonesia by the Lontar Foundation, comprises a catalogue of 2,168 seals sourced from more than 70 public institutions and 60 private collections worldwide. The seals are primarily recorded from impressions stamped in lampblack, ink or wax on manuscript letters, treaties and other documents, but around 300 seal matrices made of silver, brass or stone are also documented. These Malay seals originate from the present-day territories of Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and the southern parts of Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, and date from the second half of the 16th century to the early twentieth century.

the large silver seal of Sultan Abdul Samad of Selangor
A rare surviving example of a royal Malay seal matrix: the large silver seal of Sultan Abdul Samad of Selangor (r. 1857-1898). 98 mm in diameter, this is both the largest Malay seal known, and the only Malay seal matrix with the names of the seal makers engraved on the underside: Tukang Selat dengan Tukang Ma' Asan ('Craftsman Selat with Craftsman Ma' Asan). Galeri Diraja Sultan Abdul Aziz, Kelang, reproduced courtesy of HH Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah of Selangor. (Gallop 2019: 440, cat. 1293).

In the catalogue, elegantly designed by Paul Luna - Emeritus Professor of Typography at Reading University, and an expert in the design of ‘complex text’ – each seal is illustrated and the inscription presented in transcription, transliteration and English translation.  Also noted is biographical information on the seal holder (when available); the size, shape and medium of the seal; information on the manuscript on which the seal was found; and the locations of all other known impressions. A statistical overview hints at both the wealth of data encountered and the fragility of survival: over 10,000 impressions of Malay seals have been documented, but more than half the seals in the catalogue are only known from a single impression.

The catalogue began life two decades ago as a handlist of Malay seals in the British Library, and then evolved to include seals from other collections, mainly impressed on letters, treaties, edicts, and legal and commercial documents. In the Malay world, seals were a royal prerogative, their use restricted to the ruler and court officials, and most Malay seals known today are found on correspondence with European officials. In the British Library, the main sources of original Malay seals are letters from the collection of Thomas Stamford Raffles, and documents relating to the East India Company held in the India Office Records. The Endangered Archives Programme has also provided digital access to seal on manuscripts held in Indonesian collections.  Shown below are a few examples of manuscripts bearing Malay seals in the British Library, accompanied by the catalogue entry.

Aceh
Document recording the gift of a slave from Sultan Johar al-Alam Syah of Aceh to Captain Baumgarten, 30 Syawal 1225 (28 November 1810).  Melaka Records, British Library IOR R/9/22/45, f. 50r
Document recording the gift of a slave from Sultan Johar al-Alam Syah of Aceh to Captain Baumgarten, 30 Syawal 1225 (28 November 1810).  Melaka Records, British Library IOR R/9/22/45, f. 50r.  Like most Malay seals, the seal was stamped in lampblack, which has smudged when the paper was folded.  noc
Seal of Sultan Johar al-Alam Syah of Aceh

Kedah
Letter from Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah of Kedah (r. 1778-1797) to Francis Light, Governor of Penang, 2 Syawal 1206 (24 May 1792).
Letter from Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah of Kedah (r. 1778-1797) to Francis Light, Governor of Penang, 2 Syawal 1206 (24 May 1792). British Library, Add. 45271, f. 11; this volume of letters is from the Raffles collection.  noc Due to Siamese influence, Kedah seals were generally stamped in red ink and not the lampblack favoured in most Malay states. The seal on this letter is the sultan's small private seal, rather than his official seal of state. 150 examples of this seal have been documented, mostly from Sultan Abdullah's correspondence with Light, as noted in the catalogue entry below.
Seal of Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah of Ke

Johor
Illuminated letter from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, 17 Syaaban 1273 (12 April 1857).
Illuminated letter from Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, 17 Syaaban 1273 (12 April 1857). British Library, Or. 16126.  noc It is often assumed that the most important Malay letters were illuminated, but in fact only a small number of courts ever produced illuminated letters, including Aceh, Johor, Pontianak, and Palembang. This finely decorated letter from Johor is the only Malay letter known written in gold ink. The seal, stamped in black ink, is catalogued below.
Seal of Engku Temenggung Seri Maharaja of Johor

Jambi
Edict (surat piagam) from Pangiran Dipati Anum of Jambi, Sumatra, to Dipati Terbumi
Edict (surat piagam) from Pangiran Dipati Anum of Jambi, Sumatra, to Dipati Terbumi, dated Thursday in Jumadilakhir 10--.  This letter may date from the 17th century: although the date is incomplete as the paper is torn down the left side after the word seribu (one thousand), the next word appears to start with alif, and hence is most likely empat (four) or enam (six), and not seratus or dua ratus (one or two hundreds), giving a date in the first century of the second Hijrah millennium.  British Library, EAP117/51/1/10, Collection of Depati Atur Bumi, Hiang Tinggi, Kerinci, Jambi. The seal is catalogued below. Seal jambi

The majority of the over 2,000 seals in the new catalogue have been sourced from documents similar to those shown about.  Unlike in many other parts of the Islamic world, Malay seals are rarely encountered in manuscript books. However, perhaps two of the most unusual seals in the catalogue are those of Princess Ambung of Riau, attesting her ownership of prized items of silverware.

10-sided betel box (tepak sirih) with an inset tray lid, chased silver and partly gilded, Riau islands, 19th century.V&A IS.268&A-1950

10-sided betel box (tepak sirih) with an inset tray lid, chased silver and partly gilded, Riau islands, 19th century. Stamped on the base with the ownership seal of Tengku Ambung. V&A I.S. 268-1950.A.  One of Tengku Ambung's two seals is catalogued below:
seal of Tengku Ambung

The picture that emerges from a consideration of this wealth of data is of a Malay sealing tradition, involving the regular chancery use of locally manufactured seals with inscriptions in Arabic script, which probably evolved only in the 16th and early 17th centuries in the Muslim courts of the archipelago. Although seals had certainly been present in maritime Southeast Asia over the preceding millennium – the signet ring of the king of Srivijaya was reported in Song records of the 11th century, and Ibn Battuta noted the use of seals in Pasai during his visit in the 13th century – there does not appear to have been a consistent and coherent usage of seals in any part of the Malay world before the 17th century, except in Java. A possible impetus for the increasing use of Malay seals may have been the arrival on the scene of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) around 1600, and the emphasis the Dutch placed on the use of seals in treaties, in a way that the earlier wave of Portuguese and Spanish emissaries did not.  The well-established sealing culture in Islamic lands to the west provided the Malay world with the means of response to this sigillographic challenge, but Malay seals were nonetheless designed primarily to strike a chord within the region itself, while still clearly identifying their owners as full members of the international Islamic community.

Malay seals from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia, by Annabel Teh Gallop. 
Singapore: NUS Press in association with the British Library, 2019.
852 pp.  ISBN: 978-981-3250-86-4
Distributed in North and South America by Chicago University Press
Distributed in the UK by Bernard Quaritch Ltd

The catalogue is published in Indonesia by the Lontar Foundation, with a jacket design based on the illuminated Johor letter shown above.
 Lontar front cover

Annabel Teh Gallop, 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.

00 Buddhism opening event
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.

09 OR_16009_f003r
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

03 October 2019

Vietnamese manuscripts in the British Library

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The Vietnamese collection at the British Library holds a small number of manuscripts, written in Chữ Nôm (Sino-Vietnamese) characters, and dating from 17th to early part of 20th centuries. One manuscript was present in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane at the founding of the British Museum and its library in 1753; another was acquired in the late 19th century; and the remainder came into the British Library in the late 20th century. There are six imperial scrolls and three manuscripts in bound codex form, one of which comprises a set of ten volumes, and all have been fully digitised with funding from the Henry Ginsburg Legacy.  The nine manuscripts are described below, with links to the catalogue entries and digitised versions, and to earlier blog posts.

Scrolls

A Trinh Lord’s letter to the English East India Company (Sloane 3460)
The oldest Vietnamese manuscript in our collection was probably written sometime in 1673 under the command of Trịnh Tac to William Gyfford, head of the English East India Company mission which came to establish commercial relations with Vietnam in 1672.

Sloane MS 3460
British Library, Sloane 3460, f. 1r  Noc

Two scrolls of Emperor Cảnh Thịnh (Or. 14817/A and Or. 14817/B)
These edicts were issued in May 1793 by the Tây Sơn ruler to welcome Lord Macartney, head of the diplomatic mission on its way to establish commercial relations between Britain and China. The ships were struck by a storm off the cost of Central Vietnam and needed to replenish provisions, leading Lord Macartney to seek help from the Vietnamese ruler.

Or_14817!a_f001r cropped
British Library, Or. 14817/A, f. 1r  Noc

Or 14817-B
British Library, Or. 14817/B, f. 1r  Noc

Three imperial edicts of Emperor Khải Định (Or. 14631, Or. 14632, Or. 14665)
Or. 14631 was issued on 18 March 1917 to celebrate the Emperor’s enthronement, while Or. 14632 and Or. 14665 were issued on 25 July 25 1924 to celebrate his 40th birthday. The contents of these three edicts involves the upgrading status of local gods, which was a common practice in traditional Vietnamese society.

Or 14631
British Library, Or. 14631, f. 1r  Noc

Or 14632
British Library, Or. 14632, f. 1r  Noc

Or 14665
British Library, Or. 14665, f. 1r  Noc

All these imperial scrolls are written on yellow paper and elaborately decorated on the front with patterns of dragons with five claws, both features being royal prerogatives. On the reverse, they are decorated with four mythical creatures, namely, the dragon, the phoenix, the turtle and the unicorn. The only exception is Or. 14631, which has different patterns on the reverse: it is adorned with two flower pots and symbols of longevity, instead of the usual four mythical creatures.

Bound volumes

Tale of Kiều (Or. 14844)
This copy of the Truyện Kiều manuscript was completed around 1894. Each page is beautifully illustrated with scenes from the story, and the book is bound in a fine yellow silk cover with dragon patterns. Nguyễn Quang Tuân, a Vietnamese scholar who inspected the manuscript, is of the opinion that this manuscript bears some royal significance because the dragon on the cover has the five claws, a characterisation normally reserved for imperial use only. Another significant feature of this manuscript is that it bears annotations by Paul Pelliot (1878−1945), the renowned French Sinologist, who bought the manuscript in 1929. By 2015 the manuscript was in poor condition; in particular its very thin paper had become very brittle and was torn in places due to acidity and wear and tear. Fortunately, the conservation team at the British Library was able to fully restore this invaluable manuscript to its former glory.

Or_14844_f02v cropped 2
British Library, Or. 14844, f. 2v Noc

A rare Vietnamese map of China (Or. 14907)
One of the most interesting Vietnamese manuscripts in the British Library is Bắc Sứ Thủy Lục Địa Đô or, in Chinese, Beishi shuilu ditu, ‘The northwards embassy by land and water from Hanoi to Beijing’. Written in the Vietnamese language in Chinese characters (chữ Hán) and dated 1880, the manuscript is a complete visual record of the route from Bắc Thành (the former name of Hanoi under the Nguyễn Dynasty) through China to Beijing, taken by envoys of the Vietnamese Emperor Tự Đức (r.1847-1883) on their tribute-bearing mission in 1880.

Or_14907_f069v cropped
British Library, Or. 14907, f. 69v Noc

This work was probably created as an archival record of the journey. Roads, mountains, waterways, bridges, buildings, cities and towns are all clearly depicted, as are the points of departure and arrival on the first and last pages. The title, written in Chinese characters (Beishi shuilu ditu), also includes the date (gengchen) of the journey, according to the Chinese 60-year cyclical system. The annotations on each page list place names and distances in Chinese miles (li or ly in Vietnamese) with occasional useful notes, such as ‘from here merchants used only Qianlong money’. Land routes are marked in red ink and water routes are recorded in blue ink.

Tuồng Việt Nam (Vietnamese Theatre) (Or. 8218/1-10)
This ten-volume set of tuồng plays attests to the popularity of this performing art form in the mid-19th century under the Nguyễn dynasty. Or. 8218 comprises a collection of forty six plays and legends, containing over 6,800 pages, possibly from Hue, the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyễn dynasty. Most do not include the author’s name, date and place except for one piece, Sự tích ra tuồng, which has a line which could be translated into modern Vietnamese as ‘làm vào ngày tháng tốt năm Tự Đức 3’. According to Trần Nghĩa – a Vietnamese specialist in Hán-Nôm who researched the manuscripts at the British Library back in 1995 – this note indicates that the play was written in 1850 during the reign of Emperor Tự Đức (1847-1883).

Or 8218-1-f.2r
British Library, Or. 8218/1, f. 2r Noc

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

This is the last blog post by Dr Sud Chonchirdsin, who on 1 October 2019 retired after 14 years as Curator of Vietnamese in the British Library. Sud's blog posts on the Vietnamese collection in the British Library are some of the most-read on the Asian and African studies blog. Shown below is Sud, at his now-empty desk, with a print of a Thai manuscript presented by his colleagues.

IMG_1841

22 August 2019

Monastic ordination in Theravada Buddhism

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This is the fourth of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

The Buddhist rainy season retreat or Buddhist lent, which started on Dhamma Day last month (17 July), is used by many Theravada Buddhists to enter the monastic order, Sangha, for the whole three months of the Buddhist lent. Ordination can also be for a shorter or longer period of time, depending on personal circumstances and decisions.

The practice of monastic ordination goes back to the time of the historical Buddha. Soon after he attained enlightenment, the Buddha founded a community of disciples called the Sangha. He started to form his bhikkhu-sangha with only five monks; but because of the rationality of the Dhamma he soon gained a large number of followers.

Yasa, the son of a rich man, joins the monkhood to become the sixth bhikkhu after the Buddha’s five chief disciples. Fifty of Yasa’s friends followed his example and joined the Sangha. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2
Yasa, the son of a rich man, joins the monkhood to become the sixth bhikkhu after the Buddha’s five chief disciples. Fifty of Yasa’s friends followed his example and joined the Sangha. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2 Noc

The Sangha is central to Theravada Buddhism. In the context of Buddhist monasticism, one who enters into a monastic life should for all purposes aim at the extinction of the three root causes of suffering (dukkha) – ignorance, aversion and greed – in order to put an end to the cycle of rebirths (samsara). Monastics shave their heads, wear robes in a shade of yellow, orange or ochre, study the Buddhist doctrines, observe a particular number of precepts depending on their religious advancement, practice meditation and spread the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings. Eight requisites (attha parikkhara) allowed to a monastic include three yellow, orange or ochre robes (i.e. the lower loincloth, the upper inner robe and the large top robe), an alms bowl, a razor to shave the head, a needle for mending clothes, a water strainer, and a cloth girdle.

Maha Mulasattha text on the principles of making merit written in Northern Thai Dhamma script on palm leaves with wooden covers, dated 1851 CE British Library, Or 16077. From Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection
Maha Mulasattha text on the principles of making merit written in Northern Thai Dhamma script on palm leaves with wooden covers, dated 1851 CE British Library, Or 16077. From Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. Noc

The eight requisites of monastics and some additional items like a ceremonial fan and a shoulder bag for travelling are normally donated by the lay community as acts of merit, along with food, medicines and objects for daily use. Making merit is at the centre of Theravada Buddhism and shapes the interaction between Sangha and the lay community. High levels of merit-making are regarded as a sign of peace, happy relationships and prosperity within the community or the entire country.

During the rainy season retreat, vassa, the Buddha stayed in one place of residency to teach the Dhamma. The rains retreat is a three-month period (July to October) where the Buddha did not travel from one location to another. The Buddha ordered his disciples to avoid travel for this three-month period during the rainy seasons. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14823, f. 29
During the rainy season retreat, vassa, the Buddha stayed in one place of residency to teach the Dhamma. The rains retreat is a three-month period (July to October) where the Buddha did not travel from one location to another. The Buddha ordered his disciples to avoid travel for this three-month period during the rainy seasons. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14823, f. 29 Noc

The Sinhala Ordination was introduced into Burma from Sri Lanka in the 12th century. In 1423 CE, twenty-five monks from Chiang Mai and eight monks from Angkor travelled to Sri Lanka and brought the Sinhala Ordination to Thailand. In 1476 CE, twenty-two monks from Burma were sent in two ships to the island. They were duly ordained by the Mahavihara monks at the consecrated sima (ordination hall) on the Kalyani River, near Colombo. Upon the return of these monks, King Dhammaceti (1471-1492 CE) built the Kalyani Sima in Pegu (Bago), where monks from neighbouring countries received their ordination.

In mainland Southeast Asia, two types of ordination ceremonies are held in the sima: ordination for novices (pabbajja), and ordination for monks (upasampada). To become a novice, the follower has to recite the Ten Precepts as well as the Three Refuges of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. In order to become a monk, the Sangha or monastic community will perform the upasampada ordination on fulfilment of the five conditions: Perfection of a person, Perfection of an assembly, Perfection of the sima, Perfection of the motion, and Perfection of the Kammavaca. The most senior elder leads the assembly for the newly-ordained monk, while selected monks will recite the upasampada Kammavaca ordination text taking great care with articulation and pronunciation.

Upasampāda Kammavācā in Dhamma script on red lacquered and gilt palm leaves or paper, northern Thailand or Laos, 19th century. British Library, Or.16454, cover and first leaf
Upasampāda Kammavācā in Dhamma script on red lacquered and gilt palm leaves or paper, northern Thailand or Laos, 19th century. British Library, Or.16454, cover and first leaf Noc

There are 227 monastic rules for a bhikkhu (monks) and 311 monastic rules for a bhikkhuni (nuns) as described in the Vinaya Pitaka under the section of Patimokkha, which includes abstaining from eating after midday and refraining from handling money. After the death of King Suddhodana, father of the Buddha, the widowed queen Mahapajapati Gotami went to the Buddha and asked him to allow women to be fully ordained. The Buddha initially refused her request as the reality of living nunhood posed a hardship for the women. After the Buddha’s disciple Ananda pleaded, the Buddha granted the request of Gotami on her promise to accept certain important rules to qualify her for ordination. Gotami, the Buddha’s foster mother was the first woman to be ordained in Buddhism to become a bhikkhuni. After Gotami’s ordination and the ordination of her five hundred followers, more and more women became nuns during the life time of the Buddha.

Folios of the Bhikkhuni-patimokkha in black lacquer on gilded leaves, Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, IO Man/Pali 21
Folios of the Bhikkhuni-patimokkha in black lacquer on gilded leaves, Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, IO Man/Pali 21 Noc

Although there is currently no formally acknowledged Order of Bikkhuni in Burma, Thailand or Laos, upasika (women who take vows) play important roles in society. They shave their heads, wear light yellow or white robes, keep eight or ten precepts, study the Buddhist doctrines, practice meditation and spread the Dhamma. They are also educators for women who wish to become upasika. They help carry out religious rituals and ceremonies, and they give support to elderly women, widows and orphans who are left without family. Currently, there are strong endeavours to revive full ordination of women and to get formal acknowledgement of the bhikkhuni-sangha in several Southeast Asian countries. It is said that the bhikkhuni-sangha and ordination of nuns in the Theravada tradition had died out about 1000 years ago. Nonetheless many manuscripts containing the entire Bhikkhuni-patimokkha were still produced in Southeast Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries, and this leads to the question as to why this was done, if the Order of Bhikkhuni had indeed been non-existent for centuries.

San San May, Curator for Burmese
Jana Igunma, Lead curator, Buddhism exhibition

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