THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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231 posts categorized "South East Asia"

25 February 2021

Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

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I have recently been writing on the British Library’s collection of eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, which have all been digitised. These eight manuscripts represent three regional traditions in the Malay world, with one fine Qu r’an from Patani on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, three from Aceh and four from Java. However, many more Qur’an manuscripts, mostly still held in private collections in Southeast Asia, are available digitally on the British Library website through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP). Some of these Qur’ans are in poor condition, with losses of text, but are nonetheless of great interest in representing certain manuscript traditions not otherwise easily accessible in public collections or publications.

EAP061_2_35-269b-270a
Illuminated pages at the end of a Qur’an from Java, 19th century. Pondok Pesantren Tarbiyya al-Talabah, Keranji, East Java. EAP061/2/35, pp. 538-539.

To date, around 30 Qur’an manuscripts (or surviving parts) have been digitised through five EAP projects in Indonesia. There is one Qur’an from a madrasah (pesantren) in East Java (EAP061), two from Cirebon (EAP211) on the north coast of Java, and one from Buton (EAP212) off the southeast coast of Sulawesi. Larger numbers have been digitised in Sumatra, with six in Kerinci (EAP117) in the highlands of Jambi, 12 in West Sumatra (EAP144) and eight from Kampar (EAP1020) in Riau. In many cases it can be presumed that the Qur’an manuscripts were copied in locations local to where they are still held today, but a few may have been brought from elsewhere. An important contextual factor which helps to paint a fuller picture of reading and writing cultures is that some projects, such as that in Kerinci, have also documented large numbers of printed Qur’ans, many recognizable as lithographed copies published in Bombay in the second half of the 19th century, which were widely distributed thoughout Southeast Asia.

EAP212-3-27.591-592
Qur’an manuscript from Buton, 19th century. EAP212/3/27, pp. 591-592.

One of the most recent EAP projects in Indonesia – EAP1020, collections in Kampar, Riau – has digitised a number of significant Qur’an manuscripts. The finest, EAP1020/5/2, has a beautifully illuminated frame in red, green and gold surrounding the beginning of the second chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Baqarah. Sadly, like many other Qur’ans digitised through EAP, this manuscript has lost its initial folio, which would have contained the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, set within a similar illuminated frame.

EAP1020_PDEMK_AIT_02_MMR_001
Illuminated frame around the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah; the first surviving page of a Qur’an manuscript in Air Tiris, Kampar, 18th or 19th century. EAP1020/5/1, p. 1

Another important Qur’an from Kampar, EAP1020/3/2, is actually a fragment consisting of only six folios. These 12 pages contain verses from the first two chapters of the Qur’an, Surat al-Baqarah and Surat Al 'Imran (pp.1-2 Q.2:278-283; [missing 1 folio]; pp.3-10 Q.3:7-49; [missing 1 folio]; pp.11-12 Q.3:61-73). This manuscript is immediately recognizable as a ‘Sulawesi diaspora’ style Qur’an, belonging to a distinctive school of Qur’anic manuscript art produced in locations all over the Malay archipelago associated with Bugis diaspora communities. However, no other examples of this school have so far been digitised, and so even though EAP1020/3/2 is only fragmentary it is useful to have a selection of openly accessible leaves available for further study.

EAP1020-3-2 (7)-3.26-30  EAP1020-3-2 (6)-3.20-26
Two consecutive pages from Surat Al 'Imran (Q.3:20-30) from a Sulawesi-style Qur’an copied in 1740 by a scribe born in Zabid, Yemen; the rest of this manuscript is held in the Museum Sang Nila Utama, Pekanbaru, 07.001.2007. EAP 1020/3/2, pp. 6-7

In fact, EAP1020/3/2 can be identified as originating from a Qur’an manuscript now held in the Museum Sang Nila Utama in Pekanbaru, the provincial capital of Riau, as 07.001.2007 (writen on the final page; the volume also has reference numbers on the covers of 07.5194.95 and 07.15/17). This volume is lacking the beginning, with the text starting in the middle of Surat Al 'Imran, Q.3:82, and thus continues – after a lacunum of one folio – from the fragment that is EAP1020/3/2. The volume is complete at the end and contains a colophon giving the date of completion as 4 Jumadilawal 1153 (28 July 1740), and identifying the scribe as Ibrahim al-Zabidi, who was born in Zabid, in Yemen.  This is a fascinating and rare piece of codicological evidence linking the manuscript tradition of the Malay world and  Yemen; although it is quite common to encounter Islamic manuscripts in Southeast Asia copied in Mecca, it is much rarer to find Yemeni connections attested to in writings.

MSNU  07-15-2017 (1)-ed
First page of the Sulawesi-style Qur’an, starting at Surat Al 'Imran (Q.3:82), Museum Sang Nila Utama, Pekanbaru, Riau, 07.001.2017. Photograph by A.T.Gallop, Nov. 2018.

MSNU  07-15-2017 (24)-small
Colophon of the Sulawesi-style Qur’an, dated 4 Jumadilawal 1153 (28 July 1740), naming the scribe as Ibrahim, as being of the Shafi'i school of law, and from Zabid in Yemen where he was born (al-Shafi'i madhhaban al-Zabidi baladan wa-mawlidan, with thanks to Colin Baker and Oman Fathurahman for this reading). Museum Sang Nila Utama, Pekanbaru, Riau, 07.001.2017.  Photograph by A.T.Gallop, Nov. 2018.

A considerable number of the Qur’an manuscripts digitised in West Sumatra, Kerinci and Kampar share the characteristics of the ‘Minangkabau’ Qur’an tradition. Very few decorated elements have survived, and in many cases, as in the case of the Kampar Qur'an above, only constitute the right-hand page of what would have been a double decorated frame across the opening two pages. The few examples do however illustrate the defining features of Minangkabau illuminated Qur’an manuscripts, namely a marked emphasis on the colour red, used in combination with the ubiquitious black (ink) and reserved white (of the background paper).

EAP144-2-8
Illuminated initial second page of a Minangkabau Qur’an, framing the start of Surat al-Baqarah, from Surau Tanjung, Limau Sundai, Nagari Ampek Koto Hilia, in the kecamatan of Batang Kapeh, kabupaten Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra. EAP144/2/8, p. 1

Qur’an manuscripts in the Minangkabau tradition are generally plain, with simple textframes of two or three red ruled lines, or red and black lines, while verse markers are often hand-drawn black or red circles. Surah headings are in red ink and are sometimes set in ruled frames, while the start of a juz’ may be marked with a marginal inscription in red ink and the first few words highlighted in red ink. The hand is small and neat, and usually totally competent, and the text is written in strong black ink.

EAP117_22_1_1-PLT_MKR_0908_A_6970_a_L
Opening pages of a Qur’an manuscript, from Mesjid Keramat, Kerinci, Jambi. EAP 117/22/1/1, p. 4

In my 2017 article ‘Fakes or Fancies?’ I wrote about some recent ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia, particularly Qur’an manuscripts, which needed careful analysis for a proper evaluation. A number could be classified as ‘enhanced’ manuscripts, namely original usually 19th-century manuscripts with recently-added decoration or text designed to increase the commercial value of the book. Others were evidently ‘new’ manuscripts, often written on non-traditional materials such as wood, leather or palmleaf, or in unusual formats such as scrolls or books of stitched palm leaves, usually with a deliberate blurring of clarity around the date of creation. The Kampar project digitised three examples of such ‘new’ Qur’an manuscripts, accurately dating them to the early 21st century, but recording the inclination of all the owners to regard these as ‘old’ manuscripts. These digitised 'new old' Qur’ans, all three of which are pictured below, therefore stand as a useful record of this recent market phenomenon, which is also discussed in Dr Ali Akbar’s aptly-titled blog series, Qur'an kuno-kunoan, 'So-called 'old' Qur'ans' and Jangan langsung percaya, ‘Don’t be so quick to believe’.

EAP1020-3-1.386-387
Closing pages of a very large new Qur'an manuscript, 21st century, held in Bangkinang, Kampar, Riau. EAP1020/3/1, p. 386

EAP1020-3-13.482-det
Detail from a new Qur'an written in 'gold' (felt-tip) ink, 21st century, held in Bangkinang, Kampar, Riau. EAP1020/3/13, p. 482

EAP1020-3-12.11
Part of the Qur'an newly copied on paper in scroll form, 21st century, held in Bangkinang, Kampar. EAP1020/3/12, p. 11

Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised through EAP
Each manuscript can be accessed though the EAP website by inserting the shelfmark below into the ‘Search all endangered archives’ box. Alternatively, a pdf with direct links to each manuscript can be found here: Download EAP Qurans-2021

EAP061 – East Java (1)
EAP061/2/35
EAP211 – Cirebon, Java (2)
EAP211/1/2/36; EAP211/1/2/37
EAP212 – Buton (1)
EAP212/3/27
EAP117 – Kerinci, Jambi (6)
EAP117/8/1/1; EAP117/22/1/1; EAP117/22/1/2; EAP117/23/1/3; EAP117/23/1/4; EAP117/30/1/3
EAP144 – Minangkabau (12)
EAP144/1/9; EAP144/1/13; EAP144/2/1; EAP144/2/5; EAP144/2/8; EAP144/2/10; EAP144/2/17; EAP144/2/19; EAP144/4/22; EAP144/4/29; EAP144/3/35; EAP144/5/49
EAP1020 – Kampar (8)
EAP1020/3/1; EAP1020/3/2; EAP1020/3/3; EAP1020/3/5; EAP1020/3/12; EAP1020/3/13; EAP1020/5/1; EAP1020/6/3

References:
A.T. Gallop, 'Fakes or fancies? Some ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia'. Manuscript cultures, 2017, 10: 101-128.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

15 February 2021

The Burmese Harp: (3) Heaven and Earth

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In my two previous blogs on the Burmese harp - (1) Seduction of the Senses and (2) Matters of the Heart - I gave examples of how the Burmese harp or Saung was incorporated into Jātaka stories (stories of the previous lives of the Buddha). In this final instalment I will discuss how the Saung was intimately connected with the life of the Gautama Buddha.

The Buddha was originally born as a prince into a lavish lifestyle, and is described as having been accompanied by forty thousand dancing women and an all-female orchestra. In this depiction of the court (Or 14197) one can see alongside the dancer a full female orchestra with a fiddle, a xylophone, a harp (back row, next to the fiddle), a flute and a drum. Two of the women are clapping their hands in rhythm.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama enjoying the entertainment of his private orchestra and a dancer. British Library
Prince Siddhartha Gautama enjoying the entertainment of his private orchestra and a dancer. British Library, Or 14197, f. 1r  noc

The orchestra played an important part in the Buddha’s disillusionment and decision to leave his princely life. One day, when he returned to his palace the orchestra started enthusiastically entertaining him. However, his mind was already detached from such pleasures and he fell asleep. Without its main audience, the orchestra also dozed off while still hugging their instruments. When the prince woke up and saw them lying around in a disorderly fashion, leg showing here, breast showing there, some sleeping with their mouths open, some grinding their teeth, he became even more disillusioned. He decided to bid goodbye to his sleeping wife and child and leave the palace for good in the Great Departure (Or 4762, Or 14197).

Siddhartha Gautama peruses the sleeping orchestra. The Saung player (on the right) has fallen asleep on her instrument. British Library, Or 14197, f. 3r
Siddhartha Gautama peruses the sleeping orchestra. The Saung player (on the right) has fallen asleep on her instrument. British Library, Or 14197, f. 3r  noc

Siddhartha Gautama, standing next to a mislaid harp, peers over the orchestra, strewn about in a disorderly fashion. British Library, Or 4762, f. 1
Siddhartha Gautama, standing next to a mislaid harp, peers over the orchestra, strewn about in a disorderly fashion. British Library, Or 4762, f. 1  noc

Although the Buddha left his earthly orchestra behind, the Saung still followed him throughout his journey in heavenly form. In this rare illustrated Kammavācā manuscript (Or 13896), which is currently on display at the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, the deva Sakka plays the harp in order to lead the Buddha, who now has become a monk, to the Middle Path.

Sakka plays the Saung to the Buddha in order to lead him to the Middle Path. British Library, Or 13896, f. 16r
Sakka plays the Saung to the Buddha in order to lead him to the Middle Path. British Library, Or 13896, f. 16r  noc

The Saung was an integral part of the life in the heavenly realms, and is shown in cosmology manuscripts in all four heavenly realms of sensual pleasure - Paranimmita-vasavatti, Nimmānaratī, Tusita, and Yāma. In the depiction below, which describes the heavenly musicians of the Paranimmita-vasavatti realm the Saung is accompanied by a bell and a dancer (Or 14004).

Harp 3 - picture 5 Paranimmita-vasavatti realm
The ruler of the Paranimmita-vasavatti realm accompanied by his heavenly musicians and a dancer. British Library, Or 14004, f. 15r  noc

The most impressive orchestra of all, however, could be found in the Tāvatiṃsa realm, or the realm of the thirty-three devas, located on top of the Sumeru world mountain. In the depiction below we can see two joined orchestras with a dancer in the middle. There are two harps and a bell in the left side orchestra, and a xylophone and a harp in the right side orchestra (Or 14004).

The ruler and the heavenly orchestras of the Tāvatiṃsa heaven.
The ruler and the heavenly orchestras of the Tāvatiṃsa heaven. British Library, Or 14004, f. 21r  noc

Until the 19th century the Saung was played exclusively within the royal court, and was considered the most valued of instruments. The most notable harpists were given posts at court, where they composed many famous pieces. Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa (1766-1853) was one of these great musicians, and added six more harp strings to the existing seven, thus producing a fuller range (of two and a half octaves). A fourteenth string was added by the famous and last court harpist U Maung Maung Gyi (1855-1933), who was appointed to King Mindon’s court in Mandalay, where he was given the title "Deiwa-Einda" (Heavenly Musician) already at the age of thirteen. The Saung gradually came out of the palace during the 19th century via small outlying courts and travelling troupes of actors and musicians. Since then it has found its way to the general public and can now be enjoyed by all.

The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla next to him singing songs of praise
The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla next to him singing songs of praise. British Library, Or 14297, f. 18r  noc

The Saung returned at the pivotal moments of the Buddha’s life. The scene above depicts the beginning of the process of meditation that in the end led to Enlightenment. The Buddha is here shown meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the three devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla from the three realms next to him singing songs of praise. Sakka blows the conch, while Mahākāla plays the harp and sings with over a hundred verses (Or 14297).

The Buddha’s Enlightenment, celebrated with harp music
The Buddha’s Enlightenment, celebrated with harp music. British Library, Or 14297, f. 20r  noc

The devas ran away when Māra’s frightening troops arrived, and a difficult mental battle ensued which the Buddha eventually conquered. He had now attained Enlightenment, and the event was celebrated and rejoiced with much music. The Saung (with Mahākāla) is depicted here again right at his side (Or 14297).

Harp 3 - picture 9 Buddha descending
The Buddha descends from Tāvatiṃsa heaven with a heavenly retinue beside him. British Library, Or 5757, f. 17r  noc

After his Enlightenment the Buddha travelled around and taught the Dhamma to others. In the above illustration the Buddha is descending from the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he spent three months preaching the Dhamma to his mother, who was there. The Saung accompanies his descent to Earth (Or 5757). It has been said that the Saung was indeed the Buddha’s preferred instrument or even a symbol of him, and in temple murals he has been portrayed as a harpist in many of his previous incarnations.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: its classical music, tunings, and modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

N.A. Jayawickrama (trans.), The Story of Gotama Buddha. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2002.

A documentary about the harp in Southeast Asia, by Patrick Kersalé, Sounds of Angkor, 2021, including music clips of the Burmese and Karen harps, can be viewed here.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

04 February 2021

Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library

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The British Library’s collections of manuscripts from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia were largely formed during the early 19th century by officials in the service of the East India Company. These early colonial philologists eagerly sought out original literary, historical and legal texts composed in local languages such as Malay, Javanese and Bugis, but paid little attention to the rich corpus of writings in Arabic, constituting the bedrock of Islamic scholarship in the region. Manuscripts of the Qur’an, commentaries and prayerbooks were usually ignored, being regarded as poor copies of canonical texts already well known from multiple ‘better’ and older prototypes from the Middle East.

Heading for the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, revealed in Mecca, in a manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 3v (detail).
Heading for the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, revealed in Mecca, in a manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 3v (detail).  noc

As a result of this narrow range of bibliographic interests, there are very few Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in British public collections. Indeed, until the late 20th century, only three complete copies of the Qur’an from the Malay world were known to be held in the UK: two in the British Library from Java, from the John Crawfurd collection, and one in the Royal Asiatic Society, possibly also from Java (Arabic No. 4), which is of particular interest as it includes a full interlinear translation in Malay. Over the past few decades, however, a few more examples have been acquired by the British Library, which now holds eight complete Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, representing three regional styles: from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, Aceh and Java. All eight manuscripts have now been digitised, and can be accessed through the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts portal.

The East Coast of the Malay peninsula is home to two closely-linked schools of manuscript art, one based in Terengganu and the other to the north, centred on the Malay kingdom of Patani, now part of Thailand. While Terengganu produced the finest illuminated Qur’an manuscripts in the whole of Southeast Asia, in a class of their own in terms of sumptuousness and technical finesse, Patani Qur’ans are notable for their artistry and perfect judgement of proportion and presentation on the page. An exquisite small Qur’an in the British Library, Or 15227, combines certain characteristically Patani motifs with regular repeating floral and foliate motifs and deep dark pigments reminiscent of Terengganu production.

Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an, enclosing Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah on the left, probably from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 3v-4r.
Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an, enclosing Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah on the left, probably from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 3v-4r.  noc

The highly distinctive and easily recognizable Acehnese style of illumination is represented by three Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library. One manuscript, Or 16915, is indeed an exemplar of this artistic school, and is illuminated throughout with three double decorated frames and with each thirtieth part (juz’) and divisions thereof highlighted with marginal ornaments. The two other manuscripts are simpler creations, but both were also produced with decorated frames marking the beginning, middle and end of the Qur’anic text, although Or 16034 is now missing a few folios from the beginning. The third manuscript, Or 15604, has three pairs of double monochrome frames. These should not be regarded as ‘unfinished’ examples of manuscript art, for so many Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh with monochrome decoration can be found that this should be regarded as a standard variant of the Acehnese style. Neither of these two other Aceh Qur’ans have marginal ornaments for each juz’ or subdivisions of juz' similar to those found in Or 16915.

Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 2v-3r.
Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 2v-3r.  noc

Illuminated frames in the middle of a Qur’an from Aceh, marking the start of juz’ 16 (Q. 18:75), 19th century. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.
Illuminated frames in the middle of a Qur’an from Aceh, marking the start of juz’ 16 (Q. 18:75), 19th century. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.  noc

Monochrome decorated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, enclosing the final two chapters, Surat al-Falaq and Surat al-Nas, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 313v-314r.
Monochrome decorated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, enclosing the final two chapters, Surat al-Falaq and Surat al-Nas, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 313v-314r.  noc

The remaining four Qur’an manuscripts are from Java. As noted above, two are from the John Crawfurd collection and were hence aquired in Java before Crawfurd left the island in 1816. Both are copied on dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree, and both are relatively plain bibliographic productions. The decorated frames are executed simply in black and red ink, and illustrate a quintessentially Javanese architectural preference for superimposing diamond shapes upon a series of rectangles.

Simple diamond-rectangle double frames in black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 2v-3r.
Simple diamond-rectangle double frames in black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Decorated double frames in red and black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12312, ff. 1v-2r.
Decorated double frames in red and black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12312, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Both the Crawfurd manuscripts probably date from the late 18th century or very early 19th century. A third Qur’an manuscript from Java probably dates from the second half of the 19th century. It is written on European paper, and has no ornamental features. The hand could not be described as good, but care has been taken with the normal Qur’anic conventions of page layout, text frames, red ink surah headings and verse markers, and the ruled extended sin-mim ligature in the word bismillah. Care has also been taken to check (tashih) the text, and errors and omissions noticed have been rectified, as shown in the image below.

Start of Surat Tatfif (Q. 83) in a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 19th century. British Library, Or 16877, f. 312v (detail)
Start of Surat Tatfif (Q. 83) in a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 19th century. British Library, Or 16877, f. 312v (detail).  noc

The final Qur’an manuscript is from the island of Madura, off the northeast coast of Java, and is copied on dluwang. It is calligraphically one of the most impressive manuscripts in this group, written in a strong, stylish, cursive hand with a pronounced forward slope, and sweeping bowls of letters. There are striking decorated frames at the beginning, middle and end of the text. However, as has been discussed in a published article (Gallop 2017), this is an example of the commonly-encountered phenonmenon of ‘enhancement’, whereby original but essentially plain 19th-century Qur’an manuscripts from Java have had polychrome decoration added in the late 20th or early 21st century in order to raise the commercial value of the book.

Opening pages of a 19th-century Qur’an manuscript from Madura, with illuminated frames added in the late 20th century. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 1v-2r.
Opening pages of a 19th-century Qur’an manuscript from Madura, with illuminated frames added in the late 20th century. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Opening lines of Surat al-Kahf (Q. 18), written in a stylish cursive hand, in a Qur’an manuscript from Madura, 19th century. Or. 15877, f. 146v (detail).
Opening lines of Surat al-Kahf (Q. 18), written in a stylish cursive hand, in a Qur’an manuscript from Madura, 19th century. Or. 15877, f. 146v (detail).  noc  noc

All eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library have now been digitised, and are listed below with hyperlinks to the digitised copies. The small Patani Qur’an, Or 15227, was in the first group of Southeast Asian manuscripts in the British Library to be digitised in 2012 with funding from the Ginsburg Legacy, while the Aceh Qur’an Or 16915 was digitised soon after its acquisition by the British Library in 2014. The other six Qur’an manuscripts were digitised through the support of William and Judith Bollinger in a project in collaboration with the National Library of Singapore, 2013-2019.

Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library

Add 12312 Qur’an, from Java, 18th-early 19th century
Add 12343 Qur’an, from Java, 18th-early 19th century
Or 15227 Qur’an, from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century
Or 15406 Qur’an, from Aceh, 19th century
Or 15877 Qur’an, from Madura, 19th century, with late 20th century decoration
Or 16034 Qur’an, from Aceh, 19th century, lacking beginning
Or 16877 Qur’an, from Java, 19th century
Or 16915 Qur’an, from Aceh, ca. 1820s

Further reading
Colin F. Baker, Qur’an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design (London: The British Library, 2007).
A.T. Gallop, Fakes or fancies? Some ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia. Manuscript cultures, 2017, 10: 101-128.

Blog posts and web pages
Qur'ans in the British Library
An illuminated Qur'an manuscript from Aceh, 24 March 2014
Qur'an manuscripts from Java, 28 April 2015

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

25 January 2021

Inspiring women writers of Laos: (2) Kongdeuane Nettavong and Phiulavanh Luangvanna

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The current British Library exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights (until at least 21 February 2021) explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. This two-part blog post presents four female writers in Laos, all of whom have had to overcome traditional societal barriers to achieve recognition. The previous installment discussed the sisters Dara Viravong Kanlagna and Douangdeuane Bounyavong; this post focusses on Kongdeuane Nettavong and Phiulavanh Luangvanna.

Kongdeuane Nettavong, born in 1947 in Xieng Khouang, northern Laos, is a well-known Lao writer, storyteller, researcher and musician. After fleeing the Vietnam War that was devastating Xieng Khouang and other parts of Laos, and finishing secondary school in Vientiane in 1967, she went on to study at Laval University in Quebec for her Bachelor's degree in Geography in 1970. She continued her studies in Paris and graduated with a Master's degree in Archival Studies in 1974. After her return to Laos she taught geography and history at the Teachers Training College in Vientiane. In 1976 she was appointed Deputy Director of the National Library Museum and Archeology Department. With great dedication she initiated a literacy program by setting up public and school libraries, organising "book boxes" (book donations for rural libraries), and by publishing textbooks and books for juvenile and beginner readers with the aim of promoting reading.

Kongdeuane Nettavong giving an online talk on the role of teachers in society, September 2020. Image courtesy of Lao Economic Daily.
Kongdeuane Nettavong giving an online talk on the role of teachers in society, September 2020. Image courtesy of Lao Economic Daily.

From 1989 until 2010 she was Director of the National Library of Laos where she was involved in the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme and the creation of the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts. A major international event which Kongdeuane Nettavong organised in 2004 in the context of the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme was a Conference on the Literary Heritage of Laos, which presented the research of over thirty scholars from seven countries and resulted in the publication of a conference book, a major source for the study of Lao literature and manuscripts until today.

Front cover of the conference publication The literary heritage of Laos: preservation, dissemination, and research perspectives, edited by Kongdeuane Nettavong, Vientiane: National Library of Laos, 2005 (British Library YD.2010.a.7767)
Front cover of the conference publication The literary heritage of Laos: preservation, dissemination, and research perspectives, edited by Kongdeuane Nettavong, Vientiane: National Library of Laos, 2005 (British Library YD.2010.a.7767)

Among Kongdeuane Nettavong's many achievements is the establishment of the Archives of Traditional Music in Laos (ATML) project, which records sound and preserves audiovisual documents of the ethnic groups in Laos. The project also trains local staff to continue the culturally vital task of documenting and preserving traditional music and encourages the training of the younger generations in traditional music. A passionate player of the Lao mouth organ Khaen, she is president of the Khaen Club where young people can learn to play this unique instrument. She contributed to the inscription of Khaen music on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

In addition to her musical ambitions Kongdeuane Nettavong is well-known as a professional storyteller, who co-authored the book Lao folktales (Westport, 2008; British Library YK.2008.b.4839) together with Wajuppa Tossa, an eminent Lao-speaking storyteller from northeast Thailand. They see storytelling as a powerful means to preserve and revitalize local cultural heritage by engaging and interacting with audiences of all ages and diverse backgrounds.

Kongdeuane Nettavong's book Mon saneh siang khaen phaen din koet, about Khaen music, Vientiane: Lansang Media, 2018 (British Library, shelfmark pending)
Kongdeuane Nettavong's book Mon saneh siang khaen phaen din koet, about Khaen music, Vientiane: Lansang Media, 2018 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

As an educator whose aim is to transform knowledge into social progress it comes as no surprise that Kongdeuane Nettavong stars in an educational short film about an elderly school teacher. Mae Phim, who, though grieving the recent loss of her husband, cannot bring herself to retire from teaching when so much work is still to be done to educate the younger generations. Metaphorically, her daughter calls her Mae Phim Khong Sat at the end of the film, meaning "printing matrix of the nation".

Phiulavanh Luangvanna, born in 1954 in Muang Khoun, Xieng Khouang, writes under the pen-names Thidachan and Phiulavanh. She has authored 98 short stories published in five volumes, including the popular book Duan lap lae (Vientiane, 1996; British Library YP.2011.a.3749); 69 poems in three volumes; two plays; and six volumes of stories and tales for children; as well as dozens of research level articles on Lao literature, culture and art published in Lao and international journals like Vannasin (British Library ORB.30/6666) and Tai Culture (British Library WZOR.2002.a.5). She also translated several short stories, novels and poetry from Vietnamese and Thai into the Lao language.


Phiulavanh Luangvanna giving a speech at the Book Festival 2017 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Soubanh Luangrath.
Phiulavanh Luangvanna giving a speech at the Book Festival 2017 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Soubanh Luangrath.

While growing up during the Vietnam War when Xieng Khouang was the target of heavy bombing  Phiulavanh Luangvanna witnessed not only the atrocities caused by this war in general, but also the suffering and agony that especially girls and women endured when they lost parents, siblings, husbands and children. Her school education was disrupted by the daily shelling, and schools had to be moved into the jungle and caves. In 1970-71 many people from Xieng Khouang fled to North Vietnam. Phiulavanh Luangvanna trained and worked as a schoolteacher for Lao refugees near Hanoi from 1971-75. After liberation in December 1975, she moved to Vientiane and started work at a teacher training school, and from 1982-84 she studied for a Bachelor’s degree in Lao language and literature at the National Teachers Training College in Dong Dok (since 1996 the National University of Laos). There she worked for thirteen years as a lecturer for Lao language and literature teaching Lao and foreign students. In 1997 she went on to work with the Lao Women's Union as general editor of their magazine and as a radio/TV broadcaster for women's programmes.

Collection of poems entitled Mung su fan by Thidachan, Vientiane: Samnakphim Nakpaphan, 2014 (British Library, shelfmark pending)
Collection of poems entitled Mung su fan by Thidachan, Vientiane: Samnakphim Nakpaphan, 2014 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

Since 2014, though officially retired, Phiulavanh Luangvanna has been active in the Lao Writer's Association where she provides support to young and female writers. For her work she received the Mekong Literary Prize in 2007, and in 2010 she was given the title Lao National Artist. She was also awarded the Southeast Asia Write Award in 2019 for her novel Thaenkham Salaphap / The Confession.

This is the story of an American veteran returning to Laos twenty years after the Vietnam War, driven by the memories of a young Lao woman he had fallen in love with during the war, when he was injured and captured and looked after by Lao youths. It is a gripping historical novel of love and sacrifice, pride and remorse; a tribute to the young Lao women and girls who supported those fighting at the frontline, and those who lost their loved ones and their lives. It is also an insightful study of the human psyche after the war, on both sides, Lao and American, and she explores ways of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

Front cover of the prize-winning bi-lingual book Thaenkham Salaphap / The Confession by Thidachan, Vientiane: Samnakphim Nakpaphan Lao, 2019.
Front cover of the prize-winning bi-lingual book Thaenkham Salaphap / The Confession by Thidachan, Vientiane: Samnakphim Nakpaphan Lao, 2019.

The message that these inspiring Lao writers have in common is that women play a crucial role not only in education and the economy, but also as drivers of cultural progress and as sound decision makers, especially in difficult situations like war and in periods of extreme poverty. Like many of their colleagues in Laos, they emphasize that literature, storytelling, film and music are powerful means to influence mainstream conversations and challenge social stereotypes.

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

Further reading
ASEAN 20th Century Literatures, Selected Poems and Short Stories from Lao PDR (accessed 15/11/2020)
Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín, Phiulavanh Luangvanna, Laos (accessed 15/11/2020)
From Laos to the world, a bridge of blessing (accessed 16/11/2020) 
Kongdeuane Nettavong - Laos (accessed 22/11/2020)

11 January 2021

Inspiring women writers of Laos: (1) Dara Viravong Kanlagna and Douangdeuane Bounyavong

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The current British Library exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights (until at least 21 February 2021) explores how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. This two-part blog post presents four female writers from Laos, all of whom have had to overcome traditional societal barriers to achieve recognition.

Although women have always played a major role as supporters of Buddhism, the main faith in Laos, and as musical performers and storytellers (mor lam) in traditional Lao society, they were not encouraged to actively write literary or Buddhist texts. While exceptions may have existed, female writers in Laos only began to emerge and to be respected for their work in the second half of the twentieth century. Their works have helped to shape contemporary Lao literature, and they have contributed significantly to women's rights and gender equality in Laos. This two-part blog post introduces the lives and works of four contemporary female Lao authors who are now celebrated nationally and internationally, starting with the sisters Dara Viravong Kanlagna and Douangdeuane Bounyavong.

Front cover of the book Kon cha thoeng van ni, a collection of short stories by Duangchampa. The photograph depicts a young woman in traditional Lao costume and hairstyle. Vientiane: Vannasin, 1988 (British Library YP.2008.a.5028)
Front cover of the book Kon cha thoeng van ni, a collection of short stories by Duangchampa. The photograph depicts a young woman in traditional Lao costume and hairstyle. Vientiane: Vannasin, 1988 (British Library YP.2008.a.5028)

Douangchampa (Lao for "Plumeria flower", the national flower of Laos) is the pseudonym of Dara Viravong Kanlagna, a Lao National Artist who has authored some sixty short stories, ninety poems, seven novels, and a screenplay for a popular feature film entitled Boua Deng which was screened at the International Festival of Cinemas of Asia in 1988. A selection of her works is held in the British Library.

Born in 1940 in Ban Oupmoung, Vientiane, as the daughter of the well-known Lao historian and philologist Maha Sila Viravong, Dara Kanlagna has been interested in literature since early childhood. She started her career as a schoolteacher in 1958 and began to write around the same time. Few years later she became an editor at Phainam Magazine, and she also began to translate literature books. After the revolution in 1975, Dara Kanlagna worked at the Ministry of Culture as a translator, editor and writer. In 1979 she established Vannasin (British Library ORB.30/6666), a literary magazine, together with other leading Lao writers. Much of her time was dedicated to working with the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme that ran from 1988 to 1994 with support from the Toyota Foundation, and from 1992 to 2004 with support from the German government. Subsequently this programme led to the establishment of the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts which today makes images of over 12,000 manuscript texts from across Laos accessible online. In 1996 Dara Kanlagna was awarded the Nikkei Asia Prize for Culture and Community for her passionate work with the manuscripts project.

Dara Viravong Kanlagna during her work with Lao palm leaf manuscripts, 1996 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of NIKKEI Shimbun.
Dara Viravong Kanlagna during her work with Lao palm leaf manuscripts, 1996 in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of NIKKEI Shimbun.

After her retirement in 2001 she continued to write, focusing on issues which occur in society. Her themes include the role of women in society and education, the struggles and obstacles that Lao women face, and inequalities which are often a result of ancient traditions and poverty. To raise awareness about the tradition of weaving and the fact that textile production is an important industry run and led by women in Laos, Dara Kanlagna teamed up with members of the Group for Promotion of Art and Lao Textiles, all experienced female weavers, to record their personal stories and research into practices and techniques of weaving and dyeing not only of the Lao, but also of ethnic minority groups. The project resulted in the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving, published with the support of the Japan Foundation Asia Center (Vientiane, 2001).

Front cover of the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving by Dara Kanlagna et al., Vientiane: Kum Songsoem Silapa lae Pha Phae Lao, 2001 (British Library, shelfmark pending)
Front cover of the book Pha phae ni mi tamnan / Legends in the Weaving by Dara Kanlagna et al., Vientiane: Kum Songsoem Silapa lae Pha Phae Lao, 2001 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

For her collection of poems with the title Hak dok... chung bok ma (Vientiane, 2005) Dara Kanlagna received the Southeast Asia Write Award in 2010. She explained that she wrote the poems in honour of her mother, who raised her and her thirteen siblings with great patience and determination amid hardship and poverty and provided them with a good education despite being illiterate herself.

Duangchampa's prize-winning book Hak dok… chung bok ma, a collection of poetry, Vientiane: Dokked, 2005 (Reprint 2010)
Duangchampa's prize-winning book Hak dok… chung bok ma, a collection of poetry, Vientiane: Dokked, 2005 (Reprint 2010)

Douangdeuane Bounyavong, born in 1947 in Vientiane, is also known under her penname Dokked. Like Dara Kanlagna she grew up with a love of books and literature: she is another daughter of the historian Maha Sila Viravong and his wife Maly. After attending Dong Dok Teachers’ Training College in Vientiane from 1964 to 1968, she went on to study Physics and Chemistry at the University of Amiens and the University of Poitiers, France, where she graduated with a Master’s degree in 1974. She began to write while she was still a student in 1966. Her late husband, Outhine Bounyavong, was one of Laos' leading writers, and together they worked on various publications like Lao language textbooks, dictionaries, juvenile books and literary epics of national significance like Thao Hung Thao Chueang (British Library YP.2006.b.575) and Sang Sinxay.

Douangdeuane Bounyavong giving a public talk on occasion of International Women's Day, 8 March 2019, in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Judy N. Souvannavong.
Douangdeuane Bounyavong giving a public talk on occasion of International Women's Day, 8 March 2019, in Vientiane. Photograph courtesy of Judy N. Souvannavong.

While running a small publishing company named Dokked that specialized in juvenile and women's literature, Douangdeuane Bounyavong wrote eight novels, about forty short stories and over sixty poems, some of which are held in the British Library collections. Following in the footsteps of her father, she transcribed numerous folk tales and works of classical literature from old into modern Lao to make them accessible to younger generations. Her groundbreaking research on the national epic Thao Hung Thao Chuang (Vientiane, 1991, British Library YP.2013.a.2225) was re-published in Thailand in 1997 (British Library YP.2016.a.9036).

In addition to writing poetry and prose she also carried out research on Lao weaving traditions, which resulted in three books on textiles including a comprehensive study of the textile collection at Ho Moune Thaentaeng Heritage Preservation Center in Vientiane with the title Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles (Vientiane, 2015). As co-founder of the Group for the Promotion of Art and Lao Textiles (1990) Douangdeuane Bounyavong was actively involved in projects for the preservation of traditional Lao textile techniques, and initiatives to raise awareness and to improve the social status of weavers and women in general, and to promote handwoven Lao textiles abroad. Currently she is Managing Director of the "Land of Bamboo Textile Museum and Medicinal Herbs and Plants Garden" as well as editor-in-chief at Dokked Publishing House. She was awarded the Arts and Culture Prize of the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prizes in 2005 and was also a recipient of the prestigious Southeast Asia Write Award in 2006 for her novel The Charm of the Forest (Vientiane, 2005).

Front cover of the book Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles by Douangdeuane Bounyavong, Vientiane: Dokked, 2015 (British Library, shelfmark pending)
Front cover of the book Lai tam kap kon / Weaving poems: Lao textiles by Douangdeuane Bounyavong, Vientiane: Dokked, 2015 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

Among Douangdeuane Bounyavong's best-known books is her mother's narrative biography with the title When Mother was in Prison, published in 2004. The story of the girl Maly, who never had the chance to attend school and was bullied because of her mixed Lao-French heritage, is truly touching as she becomes a confident and intelligent young woman who, aged seventeen, divorces an obsessively controlling husband - something unthinkable in traditional Lao society. In 1939 she married Maha Sila Viravong, with whom she had fourteen children (in addition to a son from her first marriage). When her husband, a member of the anti-colonial liberation movement Lao Issara, had to flee to Thailand in 1940, her utmost priority was to protect her children through the precarious and violent time of WWII and later the Vietnam War, and to give them the best educational opportunities possible. The book encourages women to stand up for their personal rights and to not give in to coercive control, authoritarian behaviour and male violence.

Front cover of Douangdeuane Bounyavong's book When mother was in prison, Vientiane: Dokked, 2004 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

Front cover of Douangdeuane Bounyavong's book When mother was in prison, Vientiane: Dokked, 2004 (British Library, shelfmark pending)

In the next installment of this blog post, I will introduce two more inspiring Lao writers: Kongdeuane Nettavong and Phiulavanh Luangvanna.

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

Further reading
ASEAN 20th Century Literatures, Selected Poems and Short Stories from Lao PDR (accessed 15/11/2020)
Fukuoka Arts and Culture Prize 2005 [16th] Douangdeuane Bounyavong (accessed 20/11/2020) 
Lao Literature, Dara Kanlaya (aka Douang Champa) (accessed 12/11/2020)
Peace Women Across the Globe, Douangdeuane Bounyavong (Lao Peoples Dem. Republic) (accessed 20/11/2020)
Red Lotus (Bao Deng) by Som Ock Southiponh, Laos (accessed 29/11/2020)

28 December 2020

The Burmese Harp: (2) Matters of the Heart

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In my previous blog The Burmese Harp: (1) Seduction of the Senses I gave examples of how female harpists were depicted in Burmese manuscript illustrations. In this blog I will discuss stories of male harpists that appear in Jātakas, or tales of the Buddha's former lives, in the British Library's Burmese manuscripts collection. The theme of these stories revolves around longing and heartache.

The Sussondi Jātaka (Or 13538) recounts the story of Sagga, a harpist-minstrel. He is sent by the king of Benares to find the queen who has disappeared. Unbeknownst to the king the queen had in fact fallen in love with the Garuḍa king, who had taken her with him to Nāga Island.

The king sends Sagga, his harpist-minstrel, to search for Sussondi, his queen. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
The king sends Sagga, his harpist-minstrel, to search for Sussondi, his queen. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

While looking for her Sagga crosses the sea with a ship of merchants who implore him to play his harp. He responds: “I would make music, but if I do, the fish will be so excited that your vessel will be wrecked.” The merchants disbelieve him and insist, and in the end he plays and sings with great beauty. The fish start splashing about and a sea monster who lives in the area leaps up, falls onto the ship and sinks it. Nevertheless, Sagga manages to reach the shore of the Nāga island clutching onto his (boat-shaped) harp.


Sagga is shipwrecked by jumping fish, but manages to swim to shore with his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Sagga is shipwrecked by jumping fish, but manages to swim to shore with his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

Queen Sussondi, who was strolling on the shore in the absence of the Garuḍa king, finds him. She recognises Sagga and welcomes him with open arms. They become lovers and Sussondi hides him from the Garuḍa king whenever he returns.

Queen Sussondi finds Sagga. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Queen Sussondi finds Sagga. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

The next time a group of merchants reach the shore, Sagga sails back with them to Benares (this time successfully), where he plays his harp and sings the song of Sussondi, replete with his own longing of her, to the king.

Sagga makes the return voyage by boat. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Sagga makes the return voyage by boat. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

Sagga returns to the palace and sings the story of Sussondi to the king. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r 
Sagga returns to the palace and sings the story of Sussondi to the king. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r   noc

The Burmese harp or Saung is a very old instrument that has a continuous history that spans over a thousand years. Many temple reliefs and wall frescoes from Bagan (9th-13th centuries) depict harps, although Judith Becker has suggested these harps may be different from the Sri Ksetra harp (see previous blog), which in turn resembles quite closely the modern Burmese harp. There probably were many different kinds of harps in use at the time. Although the terminology for the harp varies, the word Saung first appears at the Lokatheikpan temple in Bagan (c. 1125), where it describes “monks, who can play the harp”. Indeed, the Saung seems to have an inextricable connection with Buddhism and, according to Becker, the disappearance of the harp accompanied the decline of Buddhism in certain parts of South Asia.

The earliest known songs thought to have been composed for harp music date to the early 14th century (“Three Shield-Dance Songs attributed to the Lord of Myinzaing”). Although song-texts were inscribed on palm leaf there was no musical notation, and so the musical tradition was passed on orally with the music itself being impressed on memory when performed. The oldest harp music that still survives is the “Three Barge Songs”, attributed to Wungyi Padei-tha-yaza (1683-1754), a minister at the Toungoo court. These songs purportedly describe a river voyage from Lake Meiktila to Tagaung.

The Aṇḍabhūta Jātaka (Mss Burmese 202) makes use of the harp for a lighthearted slapstick humour scene. It recounts the story of a Brahmin who has gone to great effort to find and keep a wife who has never seen any other men. Here he plays the harp to her at home for her entertainment. Unbeknownst to him, however, she has taken a lover, and tricks him into being blindfolded through the pretense of her being too shy of him watching her dance. While he is blindfolded in this way, the lover, who is currently staying in the house, hits him on the head and hides.

A blindfolded Brahmin plays the harp to his wife, while her lover hits him from behind. Mss Burmese 202, f. 75v 
A blindfolded Brahmin plays the harp to his wife, while her lover hits him from behind. Mss Burmese 202, f. 75v   noc

The Dīghītikosala Jātaka (Or 13538) tells the heart-wrenching story of a prince (the Bodhisatta), whose parents are cruelly slain by a deceitful rival. He is devastated, but instead of seeking revenge he goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant of the palace and leads a simple life. Slowly he recovers from his heartache and when the monsoon rains fall he sings and plays beautiful songs of acceptance and reconciliation with his harp.

The Bodhisatta goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant, and recovers from his heartache by playing his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 65r
The Bodhisatta goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant, and recovers from his heartache by playing his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 65r  noc

In the next installment of this series of blogs on the Burmese harp, I will talk about the Saung’s relationship with Gautama Buddha.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

Judith Becker, “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 20 (Mar., 1967), pp. 17-23.

E.B. Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or stories of the Buddha’s former births, Vols. I-VI. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2004-2005.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

 

07 December 2020

Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage: Conference at the British Library 7-8 February 2020

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In February 2020, to coincide with its major exhibition ‘Buddhism’, the British Library hosted a public conference entitled Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage organised in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies and supported by the Robert H N Ho Family Foundation. Over two days, speakers explored the idea of ‘collections’ – be they of manuscripts, texts, art works, or practices – and how they have shaped our understanding of, and indeed the very practice of, Buddhism across the world. In this blogpost, summaries of the event’s papers are given together with links to recordings and slideshows of the papers themselves. The conference provided a wide and rich array of reflections upon Buddhism and what we mean by the very nature of ‘collections’ – and the papers are articulate and entertaining scholarship well worth exploring for all audiences.

Conference participants
Conference participants (left to right from the back): Charles Manson; Stefano Zacchetti; Andrew Skilton; Matt Kimberley; Tim Barrett; Sam van Schaik; Melodié Doumy; Luisa Elena Mengoni; Marie Kaladgew; Camillo Formigatti; Lucia Dolce; Birgit Kellner; Mahinda Deegalle; Christian Luczanits; Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim; Jana Igunma; Jann Ronis. Photo: Serena Biondo

Following an introduction by Head of Asian and African Collections Dr Luisa Elena Mengoni, a keynote lecture was delivered by Prof. Dr Birgit Kellner of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. She began by outlining how Indian manuscripts first came into circulation in Tibet during the 8th to 14th centuries in large numbers. The nature of the texts contained in these manuscripts was highly heterogenous: doctrine, philosophy, ritual, narrative and devotional poetry, non-Buddhist Indian epic, grammar. However, unlike in other regions to which Buddhism spread, Sanskrit did not take on the status of a liturgical language, with effort instead poured into using these manuscripts for teaching and translation by a network of translators moving around between and within India and Tibet. Several thousand Indian Buddhist works came to be translated and form the Tibetan canon in this way, and after the 14th century a knowledge of Sanskrit became restricted to those who specialised in the grammatical tradition.


Birgit Kellner Indian manuscripts in the history of Tibetan Buddhism

Kellner went on to look at two case studies in order to better understand how Indian manuscripts were perceived, collected and categorized. She did this by examining accounts of their use in a number of contexts, including the trading of manuscripts as a kind of currency in exchange for teaching; the acquisition and preservation of manuscripts as part of the material legacy of significant personages of a particular lineage within Tibetan Buddhist culture; and, by the 19th and 20th centuries, no longer circulating but treated as sacred objects within monastic collections to be treated as sacred objects and specially stored in libraries and stupas. Through this, Kellner addressed some of the core themes that ran throughout the rest of the conference.

The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti
The late Professor Stefano Zacchetti Remnants of a textual shipwreck: manuscript fragments of Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature. Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

In the first panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Texts and Translation” –  our speakers considered how particular textual collections and their translations shaped the understanding of Buddhism by its practitioners in the past, and how what survives of such collections colours our interpretation of Buddhist history today. In his paper on Early Chinese Buddhist exegetical literature, the late Prof. Stefano Zacchetti, University of Oxford, explored how the early Chinese Buddhist canon was conceived of and transmitted as a collection of translated texts, creating complexities in the production of commentaries so vital to interpreting these Indian doctrines upon their reception in China. Dr Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim of Goldsmiths College London gave a paper on the fascinating subject of Tibetan medicine and in particular the translation of the term rlung or ‘breath’. She looked at the history of translations of the term, and how intersection of different cultural influences from Greek to Indian have shaped interpretations of the concept and Tibetan medicine. Dr Camillo Formigatti, Clay Sanskrit Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries Oxford, examined the translations of Sanskrit texts by the Tibetan lo tsā ba Shong ston Rdo rje rgyal mtshan and Nepalese pandit Laksmīkara, and how their processes played a pivotal role in the formation of a new Tibetan literary language. The panel concluded with a Q&A session chaired by the conference organiser, Matt Kimberley Research Curator at the British Library.


Andrew Skilton Endangered texts in Thai Buddhism

The second panel – “Collections in Monastic Contexts” – explored how manuscript collections in Buddhist monasteries, temples and courts have influenced the development and interpretation of Buddhist practice. Ven. Prof. Mahinda Deegalle of Bath Spa University,  spoke about his research on Sri Lanka’s largest temple library palm-leaf manuscript collection at Hanguranketa Potgul Rajamahā Vihāra. This collection has never been the subject of published work nor its role in shaping the Theravāda tradition considered, so Deegalle presented some initial results of his survey. Following this, Dr Andrew Skilton, University of Oxford, gave a paper on recent efforts to catalogue and digitise Thai temple manuscript collections, and how conditions of preservation, textual canonical status and changes in Buddhist practice itself have pushed once significant texts to the margins where they now risk being lost forever. The final paper of the panel came from Prof. Kate Crosby, and Dr Amal Gunasena, both of of King's College London, which examined a particular group of related meditation practice texts originally composed for Sri Lankan royalty by high ranking members of the monastic community in nineteenth century, now kept in the Hugh Nevill collection at the British Library. She showed how this particular set of practices ceased to be recognised in the modern period, and how as a result this important tradition has been left absent in both Asian and Western scholarship on the subject. The panel ended with a Q&A session chaired by curator Jana Igunma.


Jana Igunma The Buddha and his natural environment in SE Asian manuscript art

The third panel – “Collections and Buddhist Practice: Art and Performance” – considered the way that visual arts and ritual performances in collections provide insight into Buddhist practice. Dr Christian Luczanits, SOAS, gave a talk on monastic collections of manuscripts and artworks in the Mustang region of Nepal. He highlighted the challenges that come with inventorising and documenting these collections and what doing so can do for understanding Buddhism’s development in Nepal. The British Library’s curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections, Jana Igunma, presented a paper on her work investigating the relationship between the historical Buddha and the natural environment. She looked at a range of eighteenth and nineteenth century illustrated manuscripts from South East Asia and how their realistic imagery of the natural world has its roots in much older Pali texts from Sri Lanka. Dr Lucia Dulce, SOAS, presented Tantric ritual practice in medieval Japanese Buddhism through an examination of writings from Japanese temple libraries. In particular, she focused on yugi kanjō, a type of ritual consecration that developed in the medieval period, drawing on unpublished material incorporating liturgy, certificates and visual representations of practitioners and performance spaces. The panel concluded with a Q&A chaired by Sam van Schaik.


Melodie Doumy and Marie Kaledgew Preservation and conservation of Buddhist scrolls

In the fourth and final panel – “Collections in the Heritage Context: Conservation, Preservation, Dissemination” – the speakers looked at different aspects of the lives of collections in cultural heritage institutions and how these contemporary settings influence the study and practice of Buddhism today. Dr Jann Ronis of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center presented the work of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center in building the world’s largest online collection of Buddhist literature in Asian languages. Ronis talked about the BDRC’s workflows, data structure and the ambitions for establishing shared standards for Linked Open Data in the field of Buddhist Studies. The British Library’s curator of Chinese collections, Melodié Doumy, and Scroll and Digitisation Conservator for the International Dunhuang Project, Marie Kaladgew, jointly presented on their work for the Lotus Sutra Digitisation Project. By focussing on one particular scroll from this collection, they demonstrated the collaborative decision-making processes that inform conservation practices and the implications these have for the longevity and interpretation of material held in the library. Finally, Dr Sam van Schaik, head of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), shared his research on the oft overlooked area of Buddhist ‘magic’ using material from both the Stein collections and more contemporary materials preserved by the EAP. Through endeavours like EAP, heritage institutions helped preserve and disseminate at-risk collections the world over by combining local knowledge and understanding of collections with the resources that are typically only available through large public bodies. The panel finished with a Q&A session chaired by Matt Kimberley.

Roundtable discussion
Roundtable discussion with (left to right) Lucia Dolce, Sam van Schaik, Mahinda Deegalle, Birgit Kellner and Tim Barrett (chair). Photo: Luisa Elena Mengoni

The conference drew to a close with a roundtable discussion on the issues explored throughout the two days, chaired by Prof. Tim Barrett of SOAS with the participation of Prof. Dr. Kellner, Prof. Deegalle, Dr Dolce and Dr van Schaik. This wide-ranging conversation looked at everything from what we mean by the very idea of collections through the challenges that come with the responsibilities of holding collections for the use of current and future generations. In all, Unlocking Buddhist Written Heritage was an important and very successful event for bringing together Buddhism scholars and professionals, Buddhist practitioners and the public to reflect upon the history of this major religious tradition, and for considering the role that institutions like the British Library play in preserving and providing access to its wealth of cultural knowledge and understanding.

Matt Kimberley, Research Curator, Asian and African Collections
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09 November 2020

The Burmese Harp: (1) Seduction of the Senses

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The British Library’s collection of digitised Burmese manuscripts, dating mainly from the 19th century, has many depictions of the Burmese harp or Saung (စောင်းကောက်). The Saung appears often in certain Jātaka stories, or tales of the previous lives of the Buddha, which have seduction and pleasure as one of the prevailing themes. The Mandhātu Jātaka tells the story of Mandhātā, a powerful king who had everything he could ever desire. Although he ended up ruling even the heavenly realms, he still remained dissatisfied. Shown below is a detail from an illustrated manuscript of the Mandhātu Jātaka (Or 4542/B). It gives us a peek into Mandhātā's court, which included beautiful musicians. The Saung player is turning curiously to see who is entering the palace.

Women of the court, including a musician holding the Burmese harp or Saung, Mandhātu Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f.57r
Women of the court, including a musician holding the Burmese harp or Saung, Mandhātu Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f.57r  noc

The Saung is a unique musical instrument with a continuous history that stretches over a thousand years. It is known for its soothing, melodious sound and can be recognised by its horizontal boat-shaped body and its long, inwardly arched neck. The ends of the strings, which used to be made from silk, are decorated with red cotton tassels. The harp is held on the lap and the strings are plucked with one hand, while the other is used for damping and staccato notes. The Saung usually accompanies a singer, who also controls the tempo with a bell (Si) and a clapper (Wa).

The earliest description of the Saung comes from a temple relief at Bawbawkyi in Sri Ksetra from the 8th century CE. It depicts a dancer with an accompanying harpist and a rhythm keeper. Tang chronicles from the 9th century also describe a delegation from the kingdom with thirty-five musicians and dancers that enchanted the court with their elaborate music performance. The orchestra included two harps and it performed twelve songs on Buddhist texts. These harps were tuned with pegs rather than strings, and interestingly peg-tuned harps are still used in Mon and Karen traditions. A later 10th-century Tang chronicle confirms that the music from these two geographic areas (from the present-day lower Myanmar) was the same.

The Boddhisatta and his four brothers at the enchanted pavilion of music. Telapatta Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/A f. 53r 
The Boddhisatta and his four brothers at the enchanted pavilion of music. Telapatta Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/A f. 53r   noc

Another of the Jātaka stories, the Telapatta Jātaka (Or 4542/A) recounts the story of the Bodhisatta as a prince who had to travel through a dangerous, enchanted forest inhabited by ogresses. His five brothers accompany him, but are eaten one by one by the ogresses who seduce them with different sensory pleasures. In this manuscript illustration the Boddhisatta (on the right in gold) has arrived to the ogresses’ magical pavilion of music. By this time he has already lost one brother in the pavilion of beauty. One of his remaining brothers, the lover of music, is raising the curtain in order to be fully immersed by the entertainment, and is just about to become the next victim. The harpist is here accompanied by a flute and a singer.

Temiya’s last temptation. Temiya Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 3676, f. 7r
Temiya’s last temptation. Temiya Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 3676, f. 7r

The famous Temiya Jātaka (Or 3676) is one of the ten last lives of the Buddha. He was a much wished-for son of the king of Benares. However, as soon as he discovered that his future kingly duties would involve inflicting punishment, he stopped speaking and sat motionless, as he did not want to inherit the throne. The king tried to budge him in many different ways, from tempting him with cakes to scaring him with snakes and loose elephants, but with no success. When Temiya turned sixteen he was put to the final test with beautiful women, song and dance. Although this illustration actually shows him quite tempted, he did in fact hold firm, and ended up not having to inherit the kingdom.

The Bodhisatta hears beautiful music through his window, and slowly falls in love with the harpist. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r
The Bodhisatta hears beautiful music through his window, and slowly falls in love with the harpist. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r  noc

A somewhat similar story is recounted in the Culla Palobhana Jātaka (Or 4542/B). In this story as well, the Bodhisatta was born as a much-wanted prince, but from his earliest days as a baby he didn’t like to be nursed by women, and was only attended by male members of the court. The king grew worried about his son’s lack of desire for pleasure, for surely this would also include ruling the kingdom. A young dancing girl, accomplished in music and song, was therefore asked to seduce him. In return she would become his queen. When morning came she played and sang outside the place where the prince was meditating. Little by little he fell in love with her and they became closer.

The Boddhisatta and his lover are banished from the kingdom after a fit of jealousy. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r
The Boddhisatta and his lover are banished from the kingdom after a fit of jealousy. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r  noc

Unfortunately, the Bodhisatta became so enamoured with her that he ran amok the town in a fit of jealousy. As punishment for this bad behaviour both of them were banished from the kingdom and went on to live together in the forest.

In forthcoming blog posts I will give examples of how male harpists were depicted in manuscript illustrations, and how the Saung was inextricably entwined with the life of the Gautama Buddha.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

Judith Becker, “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 20 (Mar., 1967), pp. 17-23.

E.B. Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or stories of the Buddha’s former births, Vols. I-VI. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2004-2005.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork