Asian and African studies blog

251 posts categorized "South East Asia"

13 December 2021

Khmer manuscripts at the British Library (Part 2)

The previous blog post on Khmer manuscripts at the British Library focused on traditional Khmer manuscripts - palm leaves (sleuk rith) and folding books (kraing). In addition to these, the British Library holds documents containing text in Khmer script that were made by foreigners who travelled or lived for some time in Cambodia and Thailand, or who exchanged written correspondences with Cambodia.

Of special interest is a small collection of epigraphic notes by Henri Mouhot, dated 1860-61, together with Mouhot’s visas issued by the Siamese authorities that permitted him to travel in the country. These documents were initially given to the British Museum in 1894 by Mrs Mouhot, over 30 years after her husband’s death, and were transferred to the British Library after 1973 (Or 4736). They contain a “sacred Khmer alphabet” for Pali texts together with a short text sample, an “ordinary Khmer alphabet” with two text samples, copies of ancient Khmer stone inscriptions, together with Lao alphabets and text samples.

The copies of Khmer inscriptions that Mouhot produced are particularly interesting as some of the original stones may not exist anymore. They include copies of inscriptions at Angkor Wat, at Phanom Wan near Korat, at a temple ruin near Phimai, at Khamphaeng Phet, Battambang, Chaiyaphum, and Angkor Thom.

Henri Mouhot’s copy of a stone inscription found on an unspecified terrace at Angkor Thom
Henri Mouhot’s copy of a stone inscription found on an unspecified terrace at Angkor Thom. From the collection of epigraphic notes of Henri Mouhot; date of the copy 1860-61. British Library, Or 4736, f. 14 Noc

Another interesting manuscript is a European-style bound book with the title “Dictionary of the Kameh language with the English translation to every word”. It contains thirty folios of handwritten Khmer text with English translations, and it is not actually a dictionary, but a glossary. The Khmer text is written below the line, following South and Southeast Asian writing traditions, whereas the English translations were added above the Khmer text. An introductory note says that “This dictionary wants the insertion of about 4000 words and a fuller explanation in English, which will be done, if the work is to be printed.” However, it does not seem as if the work was ever completed or printed since the last nine folios were left blank. Nonetheless, this is an outstanding work which was compiled in 1830 by two persons: a learned Khmer speaker known as Chaou Bun, resident in Siam, and the German missionary Karl Gützlaff who lived in Bangkok from 1828-31. Gützlaff’s first wife, Maria Newell Gützlaff, an English missionary, teacher and translator of Chinese, may have assisted in some way with this collaborative work after she joined her husband in Bangkok in 1830. Together, they were also working on Bible translations into Thai, Khmer and Lao languages. The sudden death of Maria following the birth of twins and Gützlaff’s departure to Macau in 1831 was probably the reason why the glossary was never finished.

Page from the “Dictionary of the Kameh language with the English translation to every word” by Chaou Bun (Khmer text) and Karl Gützlaff (English translations), 1830
Page from the “Dictionary of the Kameh language with the English translation to every word” by Chaou Bun (Khmer text) and Karl Gützlaff (English translations), 1830. British Library, Or 13577, f. 14 Noc

The most remarkable manuscript containing Khmer text is a nearly 15 m long paper scroll from Japan. It contains a mid-19th century copy of a transcript made in 1818 of ten official documents and trade letters written in Japanese from the Gaiban Shokan (Foreign Correspondence) between the Japanese government (shogunate) and various foreign rulers or officials between the years 1604 and 1675. Among Dutch, Italian and Luzon letters are six Cambodian documents with translations dated to 1605-6. Whereas the Sino-Japanese script is immaculate, the translations of the six letters in Khmer script are almost illegible and are thought to have been copied by a Japanese scribe who was not familiar with Khmer.

19th-century copy of a letter in Khmer language dating back to 1605, in a Japanese scroll containing trade documents from 1604-75
19th-century copy of a letter in Khmer language dating back to 1605, in a Japanese scroll containing trade documents from 1604-75. British Library, Or 12979 Noc

Thanks to the digitisation of several Khmer manuscripts with funding from the Legacy of Henry Ginsburg, it was possible to work with scholars across the globe to identify the age and texts contained in some of these manuscripts. The scroll from Japan (above) is one such example: Mr Bora Touch kindly provided a transcript of nine lines of almost illegible text in Khmer language, dated 1605, seen in the image above:
[1] សារ នោ ឧកញា ឝ្រីអគ្គរាជ នុឧកញា ធម្មតេជោយេងខ្ញុមទាង២ ថ្វាយបំគម្ម មោកស្តេចញីបុ៎ន កុ
[2] កជូ ឫ យេងនោស្រុកកុម្វុជ្ជាធិបតី បានយលស្តេចញីបុ៎នសាបុរ្សប្រសេថ្ឋពៀកទេព
[3] ឲយតេងសំពោវខ្មេរ១ឲយចោ សពោវឈ្មោះស្សយីមុនកានោក
[4] ទោះស្តេចយីបុ៎នកុកចូ ស្រលេងយេងខ្ញុំទាង២ពិតឲយស្តេចកុកចូវ
[5] ឲយទំនេរចោសំពោវចេញទោវឆាបកុំប្បីឲយនោវអាយលេយ ឥតអិយៗនុថ្វាយ
[6]មោកស្តេចលេយ សោមមោកថ្វាយចៀម៥ ក្រមួនហាប១ ខាន់សាកករ ហា
[7] ប១ សាកកសរ ហាប១ កន្ទុុយកងោក១០ ស្បេកខលាតម្បោង
[8] ៥ថ្វាយមោកស្តេចចងទេងព្រហ្បនគំមោកឯក្រោយម្តងទៀតទេពតេំងត្រា
[9] ផ្កាមកថ្វាយ..
Mr Bora Touch and another Cambodian scholar, Mr Suon Sopheaktra, helped to identify a French translation of the letter (no. 2, p. 130), saying it was sent to the emperor of Japan by two Cambodian envoys, Okna Srei Akkarac and Okna Thommadecho. It documents the gift of textiles, beeswax, candy sugar, white sugar, peacock tail feathers and leopard skins to the emperor of Japan. The letter was sealed with a red lotus flower seal.

This kind of information is not only extremely useful for the description of the manuscript in the Library’s online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts, but also for historians, archaeologists, palaeographers and linguists who rely on these rare primary sources for their research.

It is hoped that through digitisation more facts about Khmer manuscripts will come to light, for example about a rather mysterious book bound in European style. It contains 203 drawings of scenes mainly from the Ramayana and the Vessantara Jataka. Short Khmer captions written on each folio with pencil accompany the drawings. 157 pages are illustrated with scenes from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water-colour shades; pages 158-203 contain coloured drawings of scenes from the Vessantara Jataka and other Jatakas. The illustrations are in the style of the Thai Rattanakosin period and resemble reliefs of the Ramakien (Thai version of the Ramayana) at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok which were created during the reign of King Rama III (r. 1824-51). However, similar scenes from the Reamker (the Khmer Ramayana) can be found in murals at Vat Po in Siem Reap as well as on 12th-century bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat. Unusual for both Thai and Khmer painting styles is the sketching of the drawings with pencil before they were drawn with ink, as well as the shading of the black ink drawings with grey water colour. On the inside of the first unfoliated page, the word "Couronne" is written in pencil, which may be a French name. Judging from the acidity of the paper the creation period of the drawings is estimated to around 1880 to 1900. The glossy endpapers were decorated with a design called “Spanish wave” made in marbling technique which became increasingly popular in Europe in the second half of the 19th century. Unfortunately, nothing else about the book is known, except that it was acquired from Sam Fogg, London, in 1994.

Rama reveals himself as an incarnation of Narayana. Illustration of a scene from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water colour on European paper, ca. 1880-1900
Rama reveals himself as an incarnation of Narayana. Illustration of a scene from the Ramayana in black ink and grey water colour on European paper, ca. 1880-1900. British Library, Or 14859, ff. 54-5 Noc

Endpaper with “Spanish wave” design in a book containing drawings of scenes from the Ramayana and the Vessantara Jataka, ca. 1880-1900
Endpaper with “Spanish wave” design in a book containing drawings of scenes from the Ramayana and the Vessantara Jataka, ca. 1880-1900. British Library, Or 14859 Noc

All Khmer manuscripts at the British Library have now been catalogued and can be searched in the Library’s online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts  which also links to manuscripts that have been digitised.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

Further reading
Current status of manuscript collections in Cambodia’s monasteries. Fonds pour l'Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge, École française d'Extrême-Orient (retrieved 16/10/2021)
Mouhot, Henri. Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos during the Years 1858, 1859, and 1860 (Vol. 1 of 2). London, 1864.
Niyada Laosunthon. Silā čhamlak rư̄ang Rāmmakīan : Wat Phrachēttuphonwimonmangkhalārām. Bangkok, 1996
Péri, N. Essai sur les relations du Japon et de l'Indochine aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles. Bulletin de l'École française d'Extrême-Orient. 1923, 23, pp. 1-136
Roveda, Vittorio: Wat Bo: Conclusion. (2017)

29 November 2021

Khmer manuscripts at the British Library (Part 1)

The history of Khmer manuscripts is closely connected with the influence of Indian civilisation in Southeast Asia and particularly with the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism in the region. The earliest book format in the Khmer Empire – similar to that in South Asia – was the palm leaf bundle, sleuk rith. Although the oldest surviving examples of Khmer palm leaf manuscripts date back only to the late 17th century , there is evidence that they were in use in mainland Southeast Asia much earlier. The Khin Ba gold manuscript found at Sri Ksetra (kept at the National Museum, Yangon), crafted in the shape of palm leaves with holes, indicates that such manuscripts have been present in the region at least since the 5th century CE. The donation of Mahabharata, Ramayana and Purana manuscripts to a Hindu temple is documented in a pre-Angkorian stone inscription (Veal Kantel K.359) dating back to the early 7th century, and a 9th-century inscription (Prei Prasat K.279) by King Yasovarman prescribes the provision of blank palm leaves, lampblack and earth powder - for sanding down the leaves - to students. A statue in Khmer style of the 11th-12th century (kept at the National Museum, Bangkok) shows Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara holding in his four hands a conch, mala beads, a lotus bud and a palm leaf book, whereas a 12th-century bas-relief at Angkor Wat depicts an apsara holding such a manuscript.

First three leaves with text in a long format palm leaf bundle (sastra sleuk rith) containing part of the Buddhist cosmology Traibhum in Khmer mul script, 18th or 19th century
First three leaves with text in a long format palm leaf bundle (sastra sleuk rith) containing part of the Buddhist cosmology Traibhum in Khmer mul script, 18th or 19th century. Acquired by the British Museum from Edwards Goutier, Paris, on 6 December 1895. British Library, Or 5003, ff. 9-11 Noc

In the Cambodian manuscript tradition, two types of palm leaf manuscripts (sleuk rith) are known: the short format (vean), which tend to be manuals of mostly a secular nature written in Khmer language, whereas the long format (sastra) palm leaf manuscripts mostly contain Buddhist scriptures in Pali or bilingual Pali-Khmer languages, as well as sermons, legal writings and classical literary texts and poetry in Khmer language. The text on palm leaves is usually incised and then blackened.

In addition to the palm leaf manuscripts there are folding books (kraing), which were traditionally crafted with paper (snay) made from the bark of the Streblus Asper, a tree in the Mulberry family. The paper can be in a natural cream colour with text written in black ink, or it can be blackened and text written either with white chalk, a yellow gamboge ink or gold ink. Two main styles of Khmer script are found in manuscripts: aksar chrieng (slanted script) and aksar mul (round script).

Kraing manuscript made of blackened paper containing Proleung meas oey
Kraing manuscript made of blackened paper containing Proleung meas oey (transl. 'Oh my darling', literally 'Oh my golden soul') attributed to the Cambodian king Preah Reachsamphear (alias Sri Dhammoraja II), in chrieng script written in yellow gamboge ink. Cambodia, c. 1820-80. British Library, Or 5865, f.53 Noc

Despite decades of combined efforts by Cambodian and French scholars to preserve Cambodia’s manuscripts, the majority have disappeared: an estimated 80% were lost to war and destruction by the Khmer Rouge, looting, neglect due to post-war poverty and, more recently, mutilation to make souvenirs sold at tourist markets.

However, large numbers of manuscripts containing Pali or bi-lingual Buddhist texts in Khmer script have been preserved in Thailand. The country has strong ties with Khmer cultural heritage due to the fact that much of today’s Thailand geographically was once part of the former Khmer Empire. Hinduism and largely also Buddhism were introduced to the early Thai kingdoms Sukhothai and Ayutthaya via the Khmer Empire, and Thai rulers drew inspiration from the Khmer in the process of establishing their own distinctive script, literature, art, architecture, law and administration. For centuries, until the introduction of printing in the 19th century, it was common practice to copy manuscripts as a way of preserving Buddhist and Hindu sacred texts, and often such copies – including entire editions of the Pali Tipitaka – were sponsored by members of the royal family. Towards the end of the 18th century the Khmer script was adapted to accommodate Thai vowels and tonality in order to write texts in Thai language in Khmer script (called akson Khom in Thai). The copying of Khmer manuscripts reached a climax when George Cœdès was assigned to the Royal Vajirañāna Library in Bangkok (1916-18) and ordered copies of rare Khmer manuscripts and texts that were not known outside Cambodia.

Folding book containing the Pali text Mahabuddhaguna and Abhidhamma extracts in Khmer script, with a colophon and commentary in Thai language
Folding book containing the Pali text Mahabuddhaguna and Abhidhamma extracts in Khmer script, with a colophon and commentary in Thai language. Illustrations from the Bhuridatta Jataka in Phetchaburi painting style, Central Thailand, late 18th or early 19th century. British Library, Or 14526, f.5  Noc

The majority of manuscripts with text in Khmer script at the British Library originate from Central Thailand and contain bi-lingual Buddhist texts, yantra designs, medical treatises and glossaries. However, a small number of over a dozen manuscripts are almost certainly from Cambodia with text either in Pali or Khmer language. These include palm leaves as well as paper folding books.

A collection of Khmer literary texts in eleven volumes is a fine example of multi-volume kraing (folding books), made from cream-coloured mulberry bark paper (Or 16131/1-11). The text was written with black ink, and each volume has a red stamp either on the front or back cover (image below). Although none of the volumes contain a date, they are thought to be copies made between 1890 and 1925 from older manuscripts. In volume 3 the name of a temple, Vat Pudumm Vadhatiy, is mentioned. The volumes contain chapters from verse novels like “Hans yant” (vol. 1), “Tav rioen" (vols. 2-5, 8-10) perhaps composed by Ukna Cakri Kèv and Bana Ratn Kosa Kèv in 1837, “Cau Om”, a didactic text in verse consisting of admonitions from a father to his son on the art of political life and “Dambèk puon nak”, a tale in verse on the stupidity of four bald men (both vol. 6), "Laksanavans" (vol. 7), “Varanetta” (vol. 11). Some volumes also contain notes in Thai language, in a different hand, which may have been added later.

Front cover and folio 2 of a kraing manuscript containing "Tav rioen", copy of fascicle 1 in Khmer language in chrieng script, ca. 1890-1925
Front cover and folio 2 of a kraing manuscript containing "Tav rioen", copy of fascicle 1 in Khmer language in chrieng script, ca. 1890-1925. Acquired from Arthur Probsthain, London, in 2005. British Library, Or 16131/2 Noc

A charming, small kraing manuscript made from blackened mulberry bark paper (below) was acquired when former curator Henry Ginsburg’s collection of books and manuscripts was given to the Library following his sudden death in 2007. The text in Khmer language is written in gold ink, in Khmer chrieng script, but because the manuscript is incomplete it was not possible to identify the text for a long time.

Dr Trent Walker, from Stanford University, was able to establish that the text is a letter addressed to royalty, consisting of a set of prophesies for the future and admonitions to be followed. It references other prophetic (damnay) texts, including Ind damnay. The estimated period of its creation is between 1850 to 1925.

Kraing manuscript containing a royal letter written in gold ink in Khmer chrieng script.
Kraing manuscript containing a royal letter written in gold ink in Khmer chrieng script. Cambodia, c. 1850-1925. From Henry Ginsburg’s collection. British Library, Or 16827, f. 2  Noc

Traditional Khmer manuscripts like the examples presented in this blog post have been used as vehicles of knowledge for centuries and give us insights into the religious, literary and cultural traditions of the Khmer civilisation. The upcoming second part will look at some manuscripts containing Khmer texts that were created outside Cambodia.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

Further reading
Current status of manuscript collections in Cambodia’s monasteries. Fonds pour l'Édition des Manuscrits du Cambodge, École française d'Extrême-Orient (retrieved 16/10/2021)
David, Sen and Thik Kaliyann. Palm leaves preserving history. Phnom Penh Post, 19 September 2015
Documentary film: Sleok Rith, My Life, directed by Leng Sreynich (2017)
Goodall, Dominic. What Information can be Gleaned from Cambodian Inscriptions about Practices Relating to the Transmission of Sanskrit Literature? Indic Manuscript Cultures through the Ages: Material, Textual, and Historical Investigations. Ed. by Vincenzo Vergiani, Daniele Cuneo and Camillo Alessio Formigatti. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2017, pp. 131-160
Sassoon, Alessandro Marazzi and Kong Meta. A ‘crime’ against local history: Cambodia’s lost manuscripts. Phnom Penh Post, 7 April 2017
Sureshkumar Muthukumaran. Speaking of palm-leaf and paper (2018)
Toshiya Unebe. Textual contents of Pāli Samut Khois. Manuscript Studies 2 (University of Pennsylvania, 2017), pp. 427-444 
Walker, Trent T. Unfolding Buddhism: Communal Scripts, Localized Translations, and the Work of the Dying in Cambodian Chanted Leporellos. Ann Arbor, 2018

15 November 2021

Transcribed from the boundary wall of the universe: Early Dhammasattha manuscripts in the Burmese collection of the British Library

The British Library’s Burmese collection holds some of the earliest extant dhammasattha manuscripts in the world. The dhammasattha, or “treatise on the law” is a genre of Buddhist literature prevalent in mainland Southeast Asia, written in Pali and in a range of vernacular languages including Burmese, Arakanese, Mon, Shan, Thai, Lao and Khmer. Although it is an integral part of the Theravada tradition, it is also historically related to Brahmanical dharmaśāstra texts written in Sanskrit.

Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript
Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript. The title “Dhamasat’” is flanked by two dragons. Manu kyay dhammasat, 19th century. British Library, Phayre Collection, Or 3447 A Noc

The dhammasattha was the primary legal framework for society, and originally applied to every Buddhist, both secular and monastic. It dealt with all aspects of the law, covering property and land, debt, wages, inheritance, slavery, marriage (including rape and adultery), assault, murder, theft, slander and the breaking of oaths. The most extensive tradition of dhammasattha comes from Myanmar, where some laws derived from the genre are still in force in the legal system today. Knowledge of dhammasattha was part of the education of rulers and administrators, monks, as well as any “good men”, and could be put to practice by any of these (therefore being mainly a male activity). The exclusive profession of a judge came into being only during the colonial period.

This blog draws extensively on Christian Lammerts’ recent authoritative publication Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (2018), as well as his article 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong and Arakan' (2015), in which he discusses at length the dhammasattha manuscripts found at the British Library.

The Origin of Law

A flying rishi
A flying rishi. Manu was one of the first rishis or men who had accomplished super-knowledge and super-powers, such as the capacity to fly. Scenes from Jataka stories, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 1r Noc

The story of how the dhammasattha text came into being has many versions. According to one standard narrative, it already existed at the beginning of the world. The very first king, Mahāsammata, had a renowned minister of great learning named Manu, whom he appointed to adjudicate disputes. Manu, however, soon found that it was difficult to rely only on witness testimony in passing judgment, and since he was fully accomplished in super-knowledge (abhiññā) and magical powers (iddhi), he used these to fly through the sky to the boundary wall of the universe. There the dhammasattha was written on the wall in Pali with letters each as big as a cow. Manu then proceeded to transcribe the law from the wall and presented the dhammasattha text to Mahāsammata.

The dhammasattha was therefore originally conceived of as cosmically derived, neither human nor divine. It had no author, but was intimately tied to writing. Although it was a natural part of the cosmos it was only accessible to those with magical power. It was also stated that the dhammasattha was so vast it could not be mastered by the average man. This is why, the tradition reports, scholars and wise men abridged it, sometimes translating it into vernacular languages. Although the dhammasattha had many textual variations its essential cosmic justification stayed the same until the 18th century when Burmese jurists began to question this theory of the origin of law.

Dhammavilāsa dhammasat

An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version
An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version. British Library, Or 11775. Noc

Textual references to dhammasattha begin to be found in 13th century Burmese inscriptions (although dhammasattha texts were likely in circulation earlier).  The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat (ဓမ္မသတ်, Burmese for dhammasattha) is understood to be the oldest known dhammasattha composition. Out of seven existing manuscript copies three are located at the British Library (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249, Or 11775). Of these, Add MS 12249 is particularly significant, as it provides the only secure date for the composition of the text. Although the manuscript is dated 1825 the scribal colophon states that the text was copied from an old manuscript dated to 1637/38.

The oldest physical copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat is from 1758 and is located at the Universities’ Central Library in Yangon. One of the British Library copies (Or 11775), however, is dated only 11 years later, to 1769.

The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat was widely transmitted and produced many significantly different versions, both in prose and verse, not only in Burmese, but also in Arakanese, Mon and Shan.

An Arakanese dhammasat

The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749
The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749. British Library, Murray Collection, Add MS 12254, f. 73rNoc

The British Library holds a rare early Arakanese dhammasat manuscript (Add MS 12254) from 1749, which has been fully digitised. Although related to the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat this version represents a distinct Arakanese dhammasattha tradition, prevalent in the area of Sittwe and Chittagong in 18th-19th centuries. This is the oldest extant Arakanese version and the westernmost of all dhammasatthas; it is also nine years older than the oldest extant Burmese version of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat.

The text is written with black ink on individual strips of yellow paper (instead of palm leaf). The Murray Collection, of which it is a part, contains the oldest Arakanese paper manuscripts in the world (dated between 1721-1784).

The text is written in “mra mā”, which before the end of the 18th century designated both Arakanese and Burmese languages (that are closely related). Its scribal colophon identifies it as the work of “the excellent teacher and monk Rāmi Shyaṅ.” In Arakan personal names were used instead of monastic titles, which is still tradition in Chittagong today.

Manusāra dhammasat and Manu kyay dhammasat

The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese nissaya commentary
The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese commentary (nissaya). British Library, Add MS 12241. Noc

The Manusāra dhammasat was also an early tradition with the composition of the text attributed to 1651-52. It was written by Tipiṭakālaṅkāra (a monk and Vinaya scholar) and Kaingza Manurāja (a lay judge), and for the first time links the dhammasattha geographically to Myanmar and chronologically to Burmese and Mon kings. The origin story is slightly transformed, with a seer named “Manusāra” responsible for transcribing the dhammasattha from the boundary wall of the universe. Manusāra was written in Pali verse, for the benefit of durability and easier memorisation, but also included an elaborate nissaya or commentary in Burmese. Manusāra is noteworthy for the many reformulations of the dhammasattha tradition it introduced, including a more explicit separation of lay and monastic jurisdictional boundaries.

The British Library holds the earliest known manuscript of the 1651–2 Manusāra dhammathat (Add MS 12241), copied in 1773.

The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions
The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions. British Library, Mss Man/Bur 3429. Noc

The Manu kyay was a much later abridgement and differed considerably from the aforementioned treatises. It was an anonymous compendium of laws derived from the dhammasattha tradition and compiled sometime prior to 1782. The British Library holds the second oldest extant Manu kyay manuscript (Man/Bur 3429), dated to 1789. The Many kyay was translated in English by Richardson already in 1847, and henceforth made this version well known.

Impartial justice

The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon
The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 63r. Noc

The dhammasattha advocated for universal justice and applied to all Buddhist beings, human and celestial. It was meant to be “impartial, like a pair of scales”.

The Dhammasat is like Sakka’s thunderbolt-weapon and the jewel-treasure of a cakkavatti king that grants all wishes. It is like the weapon of the lords and ministers who have been tasked with carrying out the duties of the country. It is like a carpenter’s ruler and a physician’s diagnostic manual. It is like an oil lamp that illuminates a dark room filled with precious gems. It is like an eye that can see whether an appearance is good or bad, and like an ear that can hear whether a sound is good or bad. It is like the rays of the moon that illuminate the four continents at night, and the rays of the sun that brighten them during the day. It is like the tusk of a powerful elephant. It is like mother’s milk.” (Add MS 12254, f. Ki v; trans. Lammerts 2018, 184–185)

Lammerts has noted that interestingly the Arakanese versions of the dhammasattha are much more tolerant than their Burmese counterparts by allowing the testimony of both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike (“those who take refuge [in the three jewels] and those who do not,” Lammerts 2015, 431), as well as local residents and foreigners (“people from places far away,” Lammerts 2015, 431), and of good and bad people regardless of their character and the scale of the dispute. The Burmese dhammasatthas, by contrast, specifically discriminate against non-Buddhists as untrustworthy witnesses.

Bad Judges

Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly
Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 131r Noc

Punishment for faulty judgement was extremely harsh from the very beginning, and was the reason why Manu was prompted to look for a cosmic explication of the law in the first place. Judges were expected to be truthful, avoid bias, refrain from bribes, and to examine the evidence comprehensively. They were particularly advised to avoid the four “bad courses” (agati): desire (favouring a relative, a friend or someone who has given presents), hatred (disfavouring an enemy or someone who doesn’t pay one respect), fear (letting someone go without consequences because they know someone in power, or because they threaten one’s property or oneself), and ignorance (inability to understand or discern the law). Should a judge adjudicate incorrectly or unjustly the “eight dangers” and “ten punishments” would befall him.

The eight dangers, which in this formulation are unique to Myanmar, are the following: 1) being swallowed by earth, 2) being struck by lightning, 3) being eaten by ogres, 4) being eaten by a tiger, 5) death by crocodile, 6) capsizing in a boat, 7) bleeding to death, 8) madness.

The ten punishments are paralleled in the Dhammapada: 1) violent, unhappy suffering, 2) loss of property, 3) destruction of the body, 4) severe, torturing disease, 5) loss of mind, 6) oppressive punishment from the ruler, 7) harsh accusations, 8) extermination of the family, 9) eradication of wealth, 10) houses burnt by lightning.

When such a person died they fell into the four unhappy destinies (hell realm, demon realm, ghost realm and animal realm) suffering greatly as ghosts. The texts describe such hell-ghosts in detail: “His body would grow enormous… His eyes were a cubit in diameter, his mouth the size of a needle. His body was red like the colour of blossoming flowers. His toenails and fingernails were as sharp as nails, and with them he incessantly gouged his flesh and cannibalised himself. He lost all strength from consuming himself, and was eventually carried away by the wind.” (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249; trans. Lammerts 2018, 81).

If the law was adjudicated correctly it would bring great prosperity to the country and foster the ability of humans to perform acts of merit. According to certain dhammasatthas, the benefit of such merit would be divided into six parts, one of which went to the ruler. In contrast, should the law be adjudicated incorrectly the country would be unable to achieve prosperity and happiness. The demerit produced would similarly be divided into six parts, with the ruler and the judge each personally receiving one.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

I would like to thank Christian Lammerts for his comments on this blog and for his expert opinion.

Further Reading:
Lammerts, D. Christian, Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018).
Lammerts, D. Christian. 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong in Arakan', Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 19, no. 2 (Dec. 2015), 407-444.
Mong, Sai Kham, ed., Shan Thammasat manuscripts (Tokyo: Mekong, 2012).
Huxley, Andrew. ‘The Importance of the Dhammathats in Burmese Law and Culture’, Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 1 (1997), 1-17.
Hla, Nai Pan, Eleven Mon Dhammasāt Texts (Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies for Unesco, 1992).
Richardson, D. (trans.) The Damathat, or the Laws of Menoo (Maulmain, 1847)

18 October 2021

Who reads digitised Malay manuscripts?

The British Library holds a small but important collection of about 120 manuscripts written in the Malay language and the Jawi (Arabic) script, originating from all over maritime Southeast Asia. These Malay manuscripts have always – in theory – been accessible publicly in the reading rooms initially of the British Museum and the India Office Library, and latterly in the British Library, but in practice access was restricted to those who could afford to travel the long distance to London. Microfilm was the standard reprographic medium at this time, which could at least enable manuscripts to be shared, but only the most dedicated philological scholars were prepared to tackle the cumbersome microfilm readers. In the 21st century, digitisation has been a game changer: now anyone, anywhere, can read a centuries-old Malay manuscript, on a computer at home, or on their smartphone while waiting for a bus.

Through the generous support of William and Judith Bollinger, over a two-year period from 2013 to 2015 the British Library was able to digitise its complete collection of about 120 Malay manuscripts in a collaborative project with the National Library Board of Singapore. The digitised manuscripts can now be accessed online, both through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal and on the National Library of Singapore’s BookSG site. A full list of the 120 digitised manuscripts can be found here.  Many of these Malay manuscripts were displayed in the National Library of Singapore’s exhibition Tales of the Malay World in 2017, and in the accompanying book edited by curator Tan Huism, which featured 14 manuscripts from the British Library.   

Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, ‘The Story of the Prophet Joseph’, copied in Perlis in 1802 by Muhammad Lebai-Mss_malay_d_4-ff.3v-4r
Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, ‘The Story of the Prophet Joseph’, copied in Perlis in 1802 by Muhammad Lebai. British Library, MSS Malay D.4, ff. 3v-4r

However, in the crowded digital universe, it was also important to find effective ways of bringing this valuable resource to the attention of the audiences who would most appreciate it, in the Malay world of Southeast Asia. Fuelled by a conviction that all manuscripts have a unique story to tell, each Malay manuscript was given its Warholian '15 minutes of fame' through posts on the British Library’s Asian and African blog. The blog posts, which were further promoted through social media such as Facebook, gained a faithful audience, and in 2020 Malaysia and Indonesia were the two top countries for readers of the BL Asian and African blog after the UK, US and India.

The impact of the project may be judged by some of the varied and creative uses to which the digitised Malay manuscripts in the British Library have been put over the past few years, some of which are outlined below. Or rather, these are the stories we know about, for the manuscripts are freely accessible online to all. Digitising a manuscript is like opening the door of a bird cage: once the bird flies off into the world, we do not know where it will alight.

Among the most traditional outcomes of the project are scholarly editions of Malay texts. The British Library collection is particularly rich in literary manuscripts, quite a few of which appear to be unique. Thus Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, 'The Story of the Serpent Nangkawang', only known from two British Library manuscripts – Add 12382 and MSS Malay A.1 – was published in 2019 by the Language and Literary Bureau of Malaysia (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka), edited by Fathenawan Wan Mohd. Noor.

A new romanised edition of the Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 2020  Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, first page of British Library manuscript MSS Malay A.1
(Left) A new romanised edition of the Hikayat Ular Nangkawang (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2019), British Library, YP.2019.a.7399, based on (right) British Library manuscript MSS Malay A.1, f. 1v

The digitised manuscripts are regularly used all over the world for teaching and research.  At Goethe University, Frankfurt, Prof. Ulrich Kratz and his postgraduate class on Malay philology are currently working together to transliterate a unique manuscript of Hikayat Raja Dewa Maharupa, MSS Malay D.2.  Each year, Asep Yudha Wirajaya S.S., M.A., a lecturer at Universitas Sebelas Maret (UNS, University of the Eleventh of March) in Surakarta, Central Java, sets his philology students to work on a digitised Malay manuscript from the British Library, including those accessible through the Endangered Archives Programme. I frequently receive emails directly from Pak Asep’s students with queries: for example, in 2019, Muhammad Zulkham asked about watermarks, and Siti Nafi'ah Nur Halimah enquired how the shelfmark MSS Malay B.10 was assigned. It is rewarding to see lasting outcomes from these academic exercises, and the British Library manuscript, Hikayat Selindung Delima (MSS Malay C.6) – containing the rare prose (hikayat) version of a tale more commonly found in poetic (syair) form – was published in 2019 by the National Library of Indonesia, edited by Dita Eka Pratiwi with Asep Yudha Wirajaya.

FB-AsepYudha-18.12.19
Asep Yudha Wirajaya S.S., M.A. (centre) with his Malay philology class at Universitas Sebelas Maret, Surakarta, in December 2019.  Image source: Facebook page of Asep Yudha Wirajaya, 8.12.2019, reproduced with permission.

A new romanised edition of Hikayat Selindung Delima (Jakarta: National Library of Indonesia, 2019)  British Library manuscript MSS Malay C.6, showing the final page with the colophon and date
(Left) A new romanised edition of Hikayat Selindung Delima (Jakarta: National Library of Indonesia, 2019), based on the (right) British Library manuscript MSS Malay C.6, f. 65v , copied in Melaka in 1223 (1808), showing above the final page with the colophon and date.

Studies on British Library digitised Malay manuscripts are also recorded in academic journals.  In the National Library of Indonesia journal Jumantara, Nurhayati Primasari discusses a popular catechism by al-Samarqandi with Malay translation (MSS Malay C.7), copied in Batavia in the early 19th century (Jumantara 8(2), Aug. 2019), while in the same journal Hazmirullah published a farewell letter to Raffles from the Bupati of Cianjur in west Java (Add 45273, f. 36r), unusually written in romanised Malay (Jumantara 11(1), June 2020). 

Many of the Malay literary manuscripts in the British Library originate from the collection of John Leyden (1775-1811), who spent several months in Penang in 1806 in the house of Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826). The Malay poem, Syair Jaran Tamasa (MSS Malay B.9), appears to have particularly caught Leyden’s attention, for in a notebook he had begun an English translation. In a blog post in 2016 I noted that this Malay poem, of  which no other manuscript is known, to that day remained unpublished. This ‘challenge’ was picked up by Dr Mulaika Hijjas at SOAS, who devised the innovative Jawi Transcription Project to crowd-source the romanised transliteration of this manuscript.

The Jawi Transcription Project, initiated by Dr Mulaika Hijjas of SOAS to romanise the Malay poem Syair Jaran Tamasa, British Library, MSS Malay B.9
The Jawi Transcription Project, initiated by Dr Mulaika Hijjas of SOAS to romanise the Malay poem Syair Jaran Tamasa, British Library, MSS Malay B.9.

The involvement of the Malaysian ‘indie’ publisher Fixi is particularly gratifying in extending the reach of Malay manuscripts beyond a traditional scholarly audience, and bringing alive these centuries-old tales for a modern audience. Two British Library Malay manuscripts have been published by Fixi in innovative formats, both transliterated by Arsyad Mokhtar. With its many fight sequences, Hikayat Raja Babi, ‘The Story of the Pig King’ (2015) - based on a manuscript written in Palembang in 1775 by a writer from Semarang, Usup Abdul Kadir, Add 12393 - has been designed to appeal to silat or kung fu martial arts afficianados, with comicbook manga-style illustrations by Arif Rafhan Othman. The same artist opted for a different approach in the Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, ‘Story of the Prophet Joseph’ (2018) - an edition of a  manuscript copied in Perlis in 1802, MSS Malay D.4 - which is a deluxe hardcover production on glossy paper with a sumptuous palette evoking the setting of the story in Pharaonic Egypt. Recently, the Hikayat Raja Babi has been reborn as a children’s book in English, The Malay tale of the Pig King (2020), retold by Heidi Shamsuddin with dreamy illustrations by Evi Shelvia, published by Fixi with crowdsourced funding.

Romanised edition of Hikayat Raja Babi (Kuala Lumpur: Fixi Retro, 2015)  The_malay_tale_of_the_pig_king_front-1597541540
(Left) Romanised edition of Hikayat Raja Babi (Kuala Lumpur: Fixi Retro, 2015).  British Library, YP.2016.a.2565. (Right) A children’s version in English, The Malay tale of the Pig King (Kuala Lumpur: Matahari Books, an imprint of Fixi, 2020).  British Library (shelfmark pending).

Hk Nabi Yusuf stack
Hikayat Nabi Yusuf (Kuala Lumpur: Fixi Retro, 2018). British Library, YP.2019.a.2275.

It is a particular pleasure to see Malay manuscripts used as sources of artistic inspiration. One of the first artists to be inspired by the British Library corpus was Hafizan Halim, an acclaimed illuminator from Kedah, now with many royal Malaysian patrons. He was entranced by a beautiful golden letter from Temenggung Ibrahim of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, written in Singapore in 1857 (Or 16126), the only known traditional Malay example of chrysography, writing in gold. Hafizan has copied and adapted the illuminated borders of this letter in many guises in his artworks, often as the setting for Surat Yasin of the Qur’an.

Malay letter from Temenggung Daing Ibrahim of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, 1857, British Library Or 16126  golden frame around Surat Yasin drawn by Hafizan Halim of Kedah
(Left) Malay letter from Temenggung Daing Ibrahim of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, 1857, British Library Or 16126, inspired the golden frame around Surat Yasin drawn by Hafizan Halim of Kedah (right).

Detail of Hafizan Halim’s drawing based on the illuminated headpiece from of the royal Johor letter of 1857, Or 16126.
Detail of Hafizan Halim’s drawing based on the illuminated headpiece from of the royal Johor letter of 1857, Or 16126

This same golden letter from Johor also provided the setting for the invitation to a illustrious  wedding held on the island of Pulau Penyengat in Riau on 6 September 2018, of Raja Sufriana - daughter of Raja Hamzah Yunus, an eminent aristocrat and cultural figure - and Aswandi Syahri, a local historian who was involved in the EAP153 project to digitise Riau manuscripts.  It was especially poignant to see how these beautiful royal Johor patterns and motifs, preserved in Or 16126, were revived to celebrate a marriage at the very centre of the historic Malay kingdom in which these art forms would have evolved.

FB-MalikHamzah-9.9.18#
Wedding invitation of Raja Sufriana and Aswandi Syahri, 6 September 2018.  Reproduced courtesy of Aswandi Syahri.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

Further information:

Why we need to digitise our history, talk by Annabel Gallop at TEDxUbud, September 2014

 

11 October 2021

Chulamani Chedi, a celestial stupa

A stupa (Sanskrit for “heap”) is an important form of Buddhist architecture as a place of burial or a receptacle for sacred religious objects, which has its origins in the pre-Buddhist burial mounds of ancient India. The earliest stupa contained portions of Gotama Buddha’s relics, and as a result, these monuments began to be associated with the body and energy of the historical Buddha. In Thailand the term chedi (from Pali: cetiya) is more commonly used to refer to stupa as objects and places that keep the memory of the Buddha and his teachings alive. According to the Thai Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum Phra Ruang, a celestial stupa with the name Chulamani Chedi (Pali: Cūḷāmaṇi Cetiya) is situated in the Tavatimsa heaven (image below, left) where the god Indra (Sakka) and 32 deities reside.

The Chulamani Chedi (left), the pāricchattaka tree, celestial umbrella and Sudhamma assembly hall (right) in the Tavatimsa heaven, illustrated in a Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum, from Thailand, 19th century
The Chulamani Chedi (left), the pāricchattaka tree, celestial umbrella and Sudhamma assembly hall (right) in the Tavatimsa heaven, illustrated in a Buddhist cosmology, Traiphum, from Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 15245, ff. 7-8  noc

The Chulamani Chedi is mentioned repeatedly in the story of the Life of the Buddha: when Prince Siddhattha renounced worldly life, he cut off his hair which the god Indra placed in the celestial stupa. Long after his enlightenment, the Buddha ascended to the Tavatimsa heaven - where his mother had been reborn as a deva (deity) - to deliver his wisdom, or Dhamma.  This occurred during one rainy retreat (the period of the Buddhist Lent), in the celestial Sudhamma assembly hall, next to the celestial pāricchattaka tree and the Chulamani Chedi. Finally, after the Buddha’s attainment of pari-nibbana and the cremation of his physical remains, Indra descended from Tavatimsa heaven to fetch a relic of the Buddha and deposit it inside the Chulamani Chedi.

An exquisite illustration of the Chulamani Chedi with the monk Phra Malai, the god Indra and his spouse, in a Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, dated 1849
An exquisite illustration of the Chulamani Chedi with the monk Phra Malai, the god Indra and his spouse, in a Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 42  noc

Symbolising the Tavatimsa heaven, the Chulamani Chedi plays an important role in the popular story of the monk Phra Malai, who, as a result of his accumulated merit, was able to travel to the Buddhist hells and heavens. The creatures reborn in the hell realm asked him to urge their relatives in the human world to make merit. Phra Malai revealed his encounters to the laity and received eight flowers from a poor man as an offering, given with the hope of making merit and being reborn into a more fortunate existence. Phra Malai then traveled to the Tavatimsa heaven, where he met the god Indra to discuss ways to gain merit, including the accumulation of merit through listening to recitations of the Vessantara Jataka, the last Birth Tale of the Buddha. This scene is shown in the illustration above from a Thai folding book (Or 14838, dated 1849), in which Phra Malai is seen in front of Chulamani Chedi while conversing with the god Indra and his spouse, Indrani, both depicted with a red aura. Below is the same scene from another Thai folding book containing the story of Phra Malai (Or 6630, dated 1875), but here the monk is conversing with Indra and another male deity.

Phra Malai, Indra and a male deity in front of the Chulamani Chedi, illustrated in a folding book with extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, Central Thailand, 1875
Phra Malai, Indra and a male deity in front of the Chulamani Chedi, illustrated in a folding book with extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, Central Thailand, 1875. British Library, Or 6630, f. 43  noc

Although the composition of this prominent painted scene in Phra Malai manuscripts is quite standardised – always showing the monk and the god Indra with green skin in front of the celestial stupa – additional figures and objects can be included, like for example Indra’s spouse or, alternatively, a male deity, or several male and/or female deities. Chulamani Chedi is most frequently depicted as an emerald stupa with gold decorations on a white base. Sometimes the stupa is shown before a lavishly decorated background as in the example above. Often included are also the monk’s alms bowl, the poor man’s lotus offering, candles, incense, containers for pouring water for the transfer of merit to the deceased, as well as funeral banners. The latter can be either white or gold, with images of crocodiles or centipedes. In the Thai tradition, such banners are hung outside the home when someone has passed away, and they are carried in a procession to the Buddhist temple on occasion of the cremation of the deceased’s body. Occasionally, the banners can be in the shape of crocodiles and centipedes as in the manuscript below (Or 15207, dated 1882).

The Chulamani Chedi with a red aura to highlight the fact that it is housing relics of the Buddha. Illustration from a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 1882
The Chulamani Chedi with a red aura to highlight the fact that it is housing relics of the Buddha. Illustration from a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 1882. British Library, Or 15207, f. 38  noc

These elaborately decorated funeral and commemoration books with the story of Phra Malai were commissioned as an act of merit, sometimes on behalf of a dying or deceased relative, with the hope of rebirth in a heavenly realm. In the colophon of the manuscript above (Or 15207, fol. 91) it is mentioned that the patron’s wish was to be reborn in the heavenly realm of Phra Si An (Thai name for Buddha Metteyya) and to attain nibbana. It is believed that on each Buddhist holiday all celestial beings gather at the Chulamani Chedi, circumambulating it with lit candles to venerate the Buddha and his teachings.

The Chulamani Chedi depicted as a gold stupa in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, dated 1837
The Chulamani Chedi depicted as a gold stupa in a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka and the story of Phra Malai, dated 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f. 76   noc

The illustration above (Or 14710, dated 1837) shows the Chulamani Chedi in gold on a heavily decorated white base. It is situated in a walled compound with amber floor tiles. According to Pali Buddhist scriptures, Indra built walls around the Tavatimsa heaven so that mischievous or evil-minded asura, inferior deities, could not enter this realm. While Indra is shown kneeling in a respectful pose facing the Chulamani Chedi, Phra Malai is seated behind the stupa, pointing towards the entrance of the Tavatimsa realm through which Buddha Metteyya later joined the two of them to give predictions about the future of mankind. Above the entrance is a white banner with the crocodile image (Thai: makara) which in Thai Buddhist mythology functions as a guardian of gateways. Occasionally, one can see in these illustrations from the story of Phra Malai plain white banners and lanterns hanging from large poles with tiered umbrellas as in the example below (Or 14732, dated 1857). All these details reflect Thai funeral traditions.

Two illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi with white lanterns (left), white funeral banners (right), tiered umbrellas on top of poles, and worshippers in a Phra Malai manuscript from Central Thailand dated 1857
Two illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi with white lanterns (left), white funeral banners (right), tiered umbrellas on top of poles, and worshippers in a Phra Malai manuscript from Central Thailand dated 1857. British Library, Or 14732, f. 45   noc

Another feature that frequently appears in illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi are images of hong (from Mon language: hongsa, and Sanskrit: haṃsa), mythical swan-like birds that represent the release of the deceased from the cycle of life. These images, usually in gold, are also attached to the poles that hold the funerary banners and/or tiered umbrellas (below).
In the Thai Buddhist tradition, it is advised to reflect on the Buddha and to visualise the Chulamani Chedi when someone is approaching death, with a banana leaf envelope containing a white flower, incense and a beeswax candle in their hands. This is called "creating one's own image", with the aim of creating an atmosphere of tranquility and peace in the mind. When a person is going to complete their present existence all attachments, loves and hates must be cut in order to enable a fortunate rebirth in the future and, eventually, attainment of nibbana.

Emerald Chulamani Chedi with images of gold hong birds and tiered umbrellas before a background with flower decorations in a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 19th century
Emerald Chulamani Chedi with images of gold hong birds and tiered umbrellas before a background with flower decorations in a Phra Malai manuscript, Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16007, f. 48   noc

Further reading
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Thai Tellings of Phra Malai: Texts and Rituals Concerning a Popular Buddhist Saint. Tempe: Arizona State University, Program for Southeast Asian Studies, 1995.
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Envisioning the Buddhist Cosmos through Paintings: The Traiphum in Central Thailand and Phra Malai in Isan. Social Science Asia, Volume 3 Number 4, pp. 111-120 
Ginsburg, Henry, Thai Art and Culture: Historic Manuscripts from Western Collections. London: British Library, 2000
Heijdra, Martin, The Legend of Phra Malai. Firestone Library, Princeton University (2018)
Igunma, Jana, A Buddhist monk’s journey to heaven and hell. Journal of International Association of Buddhist Universities 3 (2012), pp. 65-82
Peltier, Anatole, Iconographie de la légende de Braḥ Mālay. Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême Orient 76 (1982), pp. 63-76
Santi Leksukhum, Buddhism in Thai architecture: Stupa. Manusya Journal of Humanities vol. 4 no. 1 (2001), pp. 68-77
Traiphumikatha, Buddhist cosmology: The illustrated King Rama IX edition. Bangkok: Ministry of Culture, 2012

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections  ccownwork

 

27 September 2021

The art of small things (4): Juz’ markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

The Qur’an is traditionally divided into thirty parts of equal length called juz', which are of great practical significance as they facilitate the planned reading or recitation of the Holy Book in its entirety over one month, particularly the blessed fasting month of Ramadan. Each juz’ can further be subdivided into half (nisf), quarters (rubu‘) and eighths (thumn). The start of a new juz,’ and often the subdivisions too, may be indicated in a Qur’an manuscript through a number of graphic devices. These range from a marginal inscription or ornament to a marker within the text itself, or by highlighting the first few words of the new juz’ in red ink or in bold; sometimes all these devices might be found together in a single manuscript. Preferred ways of signifying the start of a new juz’ often vary regionally, and will be illustrated in this post by Qur’an manuscripts from different traditions in Southeast Asia held in the British Library, starting with a Qur’an from Patani.

Marginal ornament signifying the start of the 28th juz’, at the start of Surat al-Mujadilah, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 273v-274r
Marginal ornament signifying the start of the 28th juz’, at the start of Surat al-Mujadilah, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 273v-274r  noc

The East Coast of the Malay peninsula is home to two distinct styles of manuscript illumination, one centred in Terengganu and the other further to the north in Patani, but all Qur’an manuscripts from this region adhere faithfully to the same principles of text layout. This follows an Ottoman model known as ayat ber-kenar, whereby each juz’ occupies exactly ten folios of paper and hence twenty pages, and each page ends with a complete verse. As well as streamlining the copying process, this uniform layout also aids the memorization of the complete Qur’an, as each verse occupies the same position on the page in any manuscript consulted. Thus a new juz’ always commences at the top of a right-hand page, and is signalled by a beautiful marginal ornament, as shown above. In this manuscript all the juz’ markers are constructed according to the same basic design of two concentric circles inscribed in the middle al-juz’, but each is slightly different in coloration and in the detail of the delicate floral and foliate ornaments extending upwards and downwards.

Marginal ornaments signifying the start of (left) juz’ 10 in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century  Marginal ornaments signifying the start of juz’ 11, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century-Or 15227 f.103v-j.11
Marginal ornaments signifying the start of (left) juz’ 10 and (right) juz’ 11, in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. The small inscription in red ink, maqra’, indicates a section for recitation. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 93v and 103v  noc

The Ottoman system of page layout is occasionally also encountered in Qur’an manuscripts from Java, but in general there are no set prescriptions for fitting a juz’ into a precise number of pages. In two Javanese Qur’ans in the British Library we see a quintessentially and uniquely Javanese method of signifying the start of a new juz’, by the placement of two marginal ornaments – very often semicircular in shape – at the midpoints of the outer vertical borders of the double-page spread, while the exact point in the text is marked with a composite roundel in red ink.

AStart of juz’2, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r
Start of juz’ 2, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r  noc

Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an.Add_ms_12343_f013r-det  Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an.Add_ms_12343_f012v-det
Start of juz’ 3 in a Qur’an from Java, ca. 1800, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an’. The stylized letter 'ayn in the margin indicates ruku' divisions for recitation. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 12v and f. 13r (details)  noc

In two other Qur’ans from Java, the start of a new juz’ is just marked with a calligraphic inscription in red ink in the margin, and an starburst roundel in red ink at the appropriate point in the text, as seen below in a manuscript from Madura, off the northeast coast of Java.

The beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surah al-Hjir (Q.15), in a Qur’an from Madura, 19th century. British Library, Or 15877, f. 130v
The beginning of juz’ 14, at the start of Surah al-Hjir (Q.15), in a Qur’an from Madura, 19th century. British Library, Or 15877, f. 130v  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, there was no pre-ordained system for copying the Qur’an. The number of pages required for each juz’ therefore depended on the style of writing of each scribe, while a conventional set of graphic symbols signified the exact starting point of a juz’ within a page of text. In the most elaborate manuscripts – such as the fine Qur’an Or 16915 shown below – the precise point of the start of the 14th juz’ is marked with a composite roundel made up of six intersecting circles; the first line of the juz’ is written in red ink and set within ruled frames; and a magnificent ornament in the adjcaent margin serves to draw the eye to the page.

Start of juz’ 14 at the beginning of Surat al-Hijr (Q. 15) in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 117v-118rr
Start of juz’ 14 at the beginning of Surat al-Hijr (Q. 15) in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 117v-118r  noc

Or 16915 is exceptionally rich artistically in not only signifying the start of each juz’ with illuminated marginal ornaments, but also indicating each eighth part through coloured roundels in the text accompanied by smaller marginal medallions. All are composed of a series of concentric circles often embellished with a variety of rays, petals, and vegetal ornaments added on four-fold or eight-fold principles, in the same palette of red, yellow, black and reserved white, but every single ornament is different, reflecting the artist’s delight in creating countless variations on a limited theme. Shown below (not to scale) is the complete set of marginal ornaments for the constituent parts of juz’ 10.

Or_16915-f.80r-j.10  ornament marking part of juz’ 10-Or_16915_f081r  ornament marking part of juz’ 10-Or_16915_f082v
From left, large ornament marking the start of juz’ 10; small roundel marking 1/8th of the juz’; roundel with monochrome petals (possibly added later) marking 1/4 juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 80r, 81r, 82v  noc

Or_16915_f083v  Or_16915_f085r
Left, star-shaped ornament marking 3/8th of the juz’; right, four-rayed medallion at 1/2 (nisf) of the juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 83v and 85r  noc

Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f087r  Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f088v  Roundel marking part of juz' 10-Or_16915_f089v
From left, roundels marking 5/8, 3/4 and 7/8 of the 10th juz’. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 87v, 88v, 89v  noc

Despite such an abundant display of artistic virtuosity in this manuscript, it is hardly surprising that the artist’s creativty and stamina began to flag towards the end of the volume. Preparatory sketches are still in place for all the marginal ornaments, but many of the later ones have not been worked up and remain skeletal ink diagrams.

Unfinished marginal ornaments in a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s.-Or_16915_f114v  Unfinished marginal ornament, Or_16915_f240v  Unfinished marginal ornaments in a Qur’an from Aceh-Or_16915_f247r
Unfinished marginal ornaments indicating parts of a juz' in a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 114v, 240v, 247r  noc

There are two other Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh held in the British Library. Both of these highlight the first words of a new juz’ in red ink, and one also marks the precise point in the text with a composite illuminated roundel, but neither were created with marginal ornaments. However, Or 16034 bears testimony to additions by subsequent hands to highlight each new juz', with occasional inscriptions and pencilled ornaments added in the margins.

The start of juz’ 4 in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, indicated in the text by writing the first line in red ink, with later additions in the margin of the pencilled inscription al-juz’, a cross-shaped ornament, and the number ‘4’ in black ink. British Library, Or 16034, f. 20v
The start of juz’ 4 in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, indicated in the text by writing the first line in red ink, with later additions in the margin of the pencilled inscription al-juz’, a cross-shaped ornament, and the number ‘4’ in black ink. British Library, Or 16034, f. 20v  noc

As noted above, the standard division of the Qur’an is into thirty parts or juz’, but other principles of dividing the text are also known, for example into three, seven or ten parts. A division based on word-count identifies the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, in Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), as the precise mid-point in the Qur’an, and the significance of this word is often recognized in Qur’an manuscripts from the Malay world. Of the eight Southeast Asian Qur’ans in the British Library, three – two from Aceh and one from Java – highlight the word walyatalattaf either by rubricating in red ink or by elongating it and writing it in bold.

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalataf-12312-95v

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalataf-Or 15034 f.116v

The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts-Walyatalaf-16915-f.131v
The midpoint of the Qur’an, the word walyatalattaf, ‘let him be courteous’, Surat al-Kahf (Q.18:19), is highlighted in three Qur’an manuscripts, one from Java (top) Add 12312, f.95v, and two from Aceh (middle) Or 16034, f. 116v and (bottom) Or 16915, f. 131v.  noc

Over the course of this study of minor decorative elements found in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, very often it was the less polished manuscripts, with scribal errors or omissions or unfinished sections, which were the most helpful in reconstructing the process of copying and decorating Qur’an manuscripts, which seems to have progressed in the same order across the Malay archipelago. First the scribe would write out the entire Qur’anic text in black ink, using red ink for the the first words of a juz’ as necessary, and indicating the ends of verses with small marks. Then, verse markers – usually in the form of red or black ink circles – were added, and coloured in if necessary. The text was then checked for accuracy and to make good any omissions. Only after this stage were frames added to each page of text, composed in accordance with regional preferences. Titles of chapters or surahs were then added in red ink, and ruled frames placed around the surah headings. After this, marginal ornaments would be added to indicate the juz’ and other textual divisions.

This article on Juz’ markers is the fourth installment of a five-part series of blog posts on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first post is on Verse markers, the second on Text frames, the third on Surah headings, the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

20 September 2021

Kālāma Sutta and the premise of free thinking

Tipiṭaka or the ‘Three Baskets’ forms the canon of the teachings of the Buddha written in Pāli. The second ‘Basket’, Sutta Piṭaka, contains five Nikāyas or ‘collections’ of thousands of discourses attributed to the Buddha and his disciples. The Aṅguttara Nikāya, or ‘numerical discourses’ is divided further into eleven Nipāta or ‘books’, one of which includes the Kālāma Sutta (ကာလာမသုတ်) or the ‘Instruction of the Kalamas’ (Tika-Nipāta, Mahāvagga, Sutta no. 65, also known as the Kesamutti Sutta). The Kālāma Sutta is famous for encouraging free thinking and opposes dogmatism, fanaticism and any kind of intolerance. It expounds the idea that in order to gain clarity one has to also examine one’s mind and ideas.

Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century. Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

The British Library’s Myanmar (Burma) Collections hold several manuscripts of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Man/Pali 56 and Man/Pali 61 both contain the Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, including the Kālāma Sutta. They are beautifully manufactured palm leaf manuscripts, entirely gilded from the outside and placed between bevelled gilded wooden binding boards. These manuscripts belong to the Mandalay Palace Collection from 1886 and therefore date from the 19th century. Both manuscripts contain over 170 precisely incised palm leaves.

The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

In the Kālāma Sutta the Buddha is wandering around Kosala accompanied by a large community of monks (bhikkhus) and comes to Kesaputta town, inhabited by the Kalamas. The Kalamas ask the Buddha for advice. There are many holy and wise men who visit the town, each expounding their own doctrines and demolishing opposing ones. This leaves the Kalamas uncertain: which of these men speaks the truth?

The Buddha responds with these famous words:

"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.”

Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

The Buddha then goes on to explain that mental wellbeing can be acquired by overcoming greed, hate and delusion and goes through each of these in detail. The Kalamas agree that greed, hate and delusion can only cause harm and that the absence of these is thus beneficial. Following this the Buddha expounds that each person has the capacity to distinguish what causes harm and what causes happiness and therefore each person should follow their own judgement. Whatever one’s belief (or non-belief) in the hereafter, if one is free of hate and malice, that person will be able to find solace.

Distinguishing between what causes harm and what causes happiness is in the Kālāma Sutta not simply an act of reasoning or an intellectual exercise, it is the ability to distinguish what leads to the harm or benefit of not just oneself but of everybody.

The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.
The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.

Further reading:

"Kalama Sutta: The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry", translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

"Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas" (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Alfred Bloom, Critical Thinking in Buddhism: The Kalama Sutta. Shin Darma Net.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

09 August 2021

The art of small things (3): Surah headings in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

Some of the most impressive examples of Islamic calligraphy from the Malay world are the headings of the surahs or chapters set within the elaborate illuminated frames sited at the beginning or end of Qur’an manuscripts. Shown below is the heading for the final chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Nas, in a manuscript from Aceh, which is almost modernist in its design, with the inscription in reserved white against a ground of red and yellow, interwoven with further purely decorative elements. However the focus of this blog post will not be on exceptional artworks such as these, but on the standard surah headings encountered on the inner pages of Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia.

Heading for the final chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Nas, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, f. 255r (detail)-det.
Heading for the final chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Nas, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, f. 255r (detail)  noc

Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r
Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r  noc

In all Qur’an manuscripts, a certain amount of information is usually conveyed at the start of a new chapter, namely the name or title of the surah, whether it was revealed in Mecca or Medinah, and the number of verses it contains. Considerable care is taken to signal graphically the difference between this ‘metadata’ and the text of the Divine revelation itself.  Thus the information is usually written in a different coloured ink, and sometimes in a different style of script, and often the surah heading is placed in a separate panel.

The best places to study surah headings are the final pages of a Qur’an manuscript, as the chapters of the Qur’an are ordered not chronologically but inversely by length. Thus the shortest surahs are clustered together at the end of the volume, usually with several on a single page. In these penultimate pages in a Javanese Qur’an, we see how the scribe has paced his writing carefuly, with increasingly large, widely-formed letters with deep stretched bowls, in order to fill the space exactly, leaving the two final chapters to be presented overleaf in special frames. On the other hand, the scribe of the Acehnese Qur’an seen below has not judged his pace quite so well: the first surahs on the right-hand page have been written with standard spacing, but on the left he is forced to leave large gaps between the lines in order to fill the page, thus enabling the final two chapters to be placed within ornamental frames overleaf.

Penultimate pages in a Javanese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 188v-189r
Penultimate pages in a Javanese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 188v-189r  noc

Penultimate pages in an Acehnese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 312v-313r
Penultimate pages in an Acehnese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 312v-313r  noc

Presented below are the headings and first line of the same Meccan chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q. 101, 'The Calamity'), in eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia held in the British Library, arranged by region. Starting with four Qur’an manuscripts from Java, in each case the surah heading is written in red ink and placed within ruled black frames that largely mirror the composition of the text frames of the pages. The first three manuscripts are written on Javanese paper, dluwang, made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree. In each case the surah heading is written in a dashing calligraphic hand, with elegantly knotted final letters. Although the final letter ta' marbuta is often written with knots – and is also found in one of the Acehnese Qur’ans – the most stylised and extravagant examples are indeed associated with Java. The fourth manuscript is written on European paper, and is in a much poorer hand.

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15877, f. 295r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15877, f. 295r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12343, f. 187r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12343, f. 187r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12312, f. 198v
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12312, f. 198v  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an, with a ruled sin-mim ligature in the basmala. British Library, Or 16877, f. 320r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an, with a ruled sin-mim ligature in the basmala. British Library, Or 16877, f. 320r  noc

In three Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library, here too the surah heading is written in red ink, and is set in ruled frames which largely mirror the red-black-red-black composition of the text frames. It can be noted that while the Javanese surah headings shown above all give the number of verses in Surat al-Qari‘ah as eight, in the Acehnese Qur’ans the first two shown below give a figure of ten verses, while the last states that there are eleven verses. Variation in counting the number of verses in the Qur’an is not uncommon, and different traditions are known to have prevailed around the world. A difference of one is usually accounted for by whether or not the opening basmala is counted as a separate verse, while a larger differential probably indicates variant regional traditions.

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 311r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 311r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an, located at the bottom of a page, with the chapter itself found overleaf. British Library, Or 16304, f. 257r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an, located at the bottom of a page, with the chapter itself found overleaf. British Library, Or 16304, f. 257r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 16915, f. 253r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 16915, f. 253r  noc

All the examples of surah headings shown above are carefully prepared, with the title information in red ink, set within ruled borders. It is a common experience, though, when looking through Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, to encounter unfinished surah headings, and in fact such incomplete examples are extremely helpful in casting light on the order in which the scribe worked.

One of the Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, Or 15406, illustrates well all the different stages of the process. Firstly, the scribe would write out the complete Qur’anic text in black ink. If the end of a surah did not fit completely onto one line, the scribe could decide either to just use part of the next line, or to position the final words in the centre (as shown below), or to arrange them at the two ends of the line.

Beginning of Surat Hud (Q.11) in an Acehnese Qur’an, without the title or ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 105v
Beginning of Surat Hud (Q.11) in an Acehnese Qur’an, without the title or ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 105v  noc

The next stage would be to fill in the information about the surah in red ink. It is interesting to note that while there are many examples of Qur’an manuscripts missing these red ink surah headings, there are are no known examples of the missing first words of a juz’ or thirtieth part of the Qur’anic text, which are also often traditionally written in red ink. This implies that the scribes took good care to ensure that the Qur’anic text itself was complete, changing colours of ink as necessary, but completing the surah headings was clearly a lower priority.

Beginning of Surat al-Anfal (Q.8) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title but without the ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 84v
Beginning of Surat al-Anfal (Q.8) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title but without the ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 84v  noc

The final stage would be to add ruled borders around the surah heading. The same work order probably also applied to Javanese Qur’ans, for in Add 12312 shown above, the ruled frames break around the spikes of the kotted letter ta' marbuta, showing that they were added after the surah heading had been written.

Beginning of Surat al-Ma'idah (Q.5) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title and ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 50v
Beginning of Surat al-Ma'idah (Q.5) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title and ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 50v  noc

Compared with the strongly distinctive regional characteristics noticeable in some minor decorative elements in Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts, such as text frames and verse markers, surah headings are remarkably similar all over the Malay archipelago: the surah heading is written in red ink, and often set in discrete frames. It can either fill a full line, or share it with the final words of the preceding surah, either by flanking them in the middle, or being flanked by them at either end, as seen above.

It is really only in the most elaborate Qur’an manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula and a few from Java that we encounter elaborate illuminated surah headings. Fine examples can be seen in a small Patani Qur’an in the British Library, which has been left till the end because it is a show-stealer. In this manuscript, the surah headings are all picked out in reserved white against a ground of coloured bands of alternating red and blue or green.  The skill of the scribe can also be seen in the superbly controlled elongated sin-mim ligature of the basmala.

Heading for Surat al-Qari’ah (Q.101) in a Patani Qur’an, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 301v
Heading for Surat al-Qari’ah (Q.101) in a Patani Qur’an, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 301v  noc

Penultimate pages in a Patani Qur’an, with multiple illuminated surah headings. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 302v-303r
Penultimate pages in a Patani Qur’an, with multiple illuminated surah headings. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 302v-303r  noc

This is the third of a five-part series on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first part is on Verse markers; the second on Text frames; the fourth on Juz’ markers; and the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Blog posts:
4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library
25 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

 

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