Asian and African studies blog

293 posts categorized "South East Asia"

25 April 2022

Reunited at last: a classical Thai verse novel from Ayutthaya

A unique set of five folding books containing the story of Sang Sinchai in Thai language has recently been reunited after a separation of about 200 years. The manuscripts, dating to before 1796, contain a retelling of an older text that was lost or destroyed during the devastation of the former Thai capital Ayutthaya in 1767 in the war with Burma. The existence of this copy of the verse novel remained widely unknown until 1958 when Thai historian Khachon Sukkhaphanit (1913-78) examined manuscripts at the British Museum and identified three volumes of Sang Sinchai. In 1973, these three volumes were transferred from the British Museum, along with other books and manuscripts, to the newly-formed British Library.

Thai text written in yellow gamboge ink on black mulberry paper; third volume of Sang Sinchai
Thai text written in yellow gamboge ink on black mulberry paper; third volume of Sang Sinchai. British Library, MSS Siamese 17/A, f. 7 Noc

The folding books discovered in 1958 are volumes one (Add MS 12261), two (Add MS 12262/A) and four (Add MS 12264). Volumes three and five were thought to be missing until recently when a photocopy of an undated, handwritten list by King Chulalongkorn’s private advisor Henry Alabaster  (1836-1884) came to light during an initiative to catalogue Thai backlog material. The list describes seventeen Thai manuscripts found in the former India Office Library, among which were the two “missing” volumes of Sang Sinchai.

The reunited set consists of five folding books made from black mulberry paper in differing sizes. The Thai text was written in yellow gamboge ink, without illustrations. The title on the first folio of volume one reads Sang Sinchai samut nu’ng (สังสินชัย สหมุดนึ่ง original spelling). The spelling in all five volumes is generally consistent with 18th-century Thai orthography. The entire text is written in klon verse, in the same hand in all volumes, with extensive descriptions of places, characters and their emotions. Only volume 3 has red lacquered covers with small flower decorations.

Complete set of five volumes containing the story of Sang Sinchai
Complete set of five volumes containing the story of Sang Sinchai. British Library, Add MS 12261, Add MS 12262/A, Add MS 12264 and MSS Siamese 17/A-B Noc

The provenance of the manuscript is partially known. Three volumes were acquired for the British Museum in January 1842 from Thomas Rodd, a London bookseller, as part of the collection of Scotsman Sir John MacGregor Murray (1745-1822, biographic details in this article).

Murray served in the British establishment in Bengal from 1770 to 1797 and was auditor general of Bengal. He never travelled to Burma, but his connection with Burma was through Dr Francis Buchanan who participated in an embassy to Amarapura in 1795 and published his observations  afterwards. On Murray’s request, Buchanan collected Burmese  and Thai manuscripts, with the assistance of a missionary resident in Ava, Father Vincentius Sangermano. Murray, a passionate collector and commissioner of mainly Persian and Arakanese manuscripts, brought his collection back to the UK when he returned from Bengal in 1797. After his death, Murray’s collection was split up: some manuscripts were purchased by the British Museum, others ended up in the India Office Library and the major part is now kept at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin in Germany.

Henry Alabaster’s description of volumes 3 and 5
Henry Alabaster’s description of volumes 3 and 5 in a photocopy of a “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts in the Library of Her Majesty’s India Office” [no place, no date]. Noc

A colophon in volume 1 (Add MS 12261) mentions that the text was compiled after the siege of the “Great City” (เมื่องไหย่) to preserve the original text that had been lost or destroyed. The phrase “siege of the Great City” is thought to refer to the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767, and the scribe as well as the patrons may have been war captives taken from Ayutthaya to Ava. The anonymous scribe states that “this ancient Mon story” (นิยายมอนแตกอนมา original spelling) was written down from memory. Another colophon on f. 42 of the second volume mentions two grandparents, Ta Khong and Yai Mun (ตาคง ยายมูน), who commissioned this manuscript. And a colophon on the last folio of volume 3 records that this volume was completed on “Saturday, ninth month, [uposatha day before] the 3rd quarter moon, year of the rat” corresponding to 20 August 1791.

Colophon in the first volume mentioning the loss of the original text during the “siege of the Great City” (second line)
Colophon in the first volume mentioning the loss of the original text during the “siege of the Great City” (second line). British Library, Add MS 12261, f.2 Noc

The text tells the story of King Senakut and his younger sister Keson Sumontha, who was abducted by the giant Yak Kumphan. The pair later had a daughter, Sri Suphan, whom Yak Kumphan lost in a gamble to the king of serpents. Senakut, distraught by the kidnapping of his sister, set up a hermitage in the forest where he met seven beautiful maidens who became his consorts. Six of them gave birth to sons, but the seventh consort, Pathuma, and her attendant Kraison gave birth to two very special sons. Pathuma’s child, Sang Sinchai, was born in a conch shell and with an ivory bow, and Kraison’s son Sing had the shape of a mythical lion.

The six other jealous consorts plotted to convince the king that the two strange sons were a bad omen, so he banished them and their mothers from the city. Growing up in the forest, the boys acquired super-human skills in addition to powers they were born with. One day, the king ordered his other six sons to search for Keson Sumontha who he could not forget. Being cowards, they looked for Sang Sinchai and Sing and tricked them into joining the search for their aunt. Sang Sinchai located Keson Sumontha, but she told him about her daughter Sri Suphan who lived with the serpent king. Sang Sinchai and Sing rescued both women and brought them back to the other six brothers who pushed Sang Sinchai down a water hole before taking the women to King Senakut. However, Keson Sumontha left her scarf at the spot and vowed that should she ever get it back, it meant Sang Sinchai was still alive.

After some time, a merchant brought Keson Sumontha’s scarf to the city. She implored the king to find Sang Sinchai in the forest. Senakut followed her wish and finally welcomed Sang Sinchai, Sing and their mothers back into the city. Sang Sinchai married Sri Suphan and became king while Senakut ordered the six other sons and their mothers to become the new king’s servants. Senakut, Keson Sumontha and Pathuma became ascetics.

Illustration of King Senakut’s city in a dramatised version of Sang Sinchai by Rama II
Illustration of King Senakut’s city in a dramatised version of Sang Sinchai by Rama II, published in Bangkok, 1922. British Library, Siam.160, p. 471.

It is often assumed that Sang Sinchai is simply the Thai pronunciation of Sang Sinsai, a well-known work attributed to the 17th-century Lao scribe Pangkham. The Lao text is considered a masterpiece of Lao literature and is very popular across Laos thanks to the extensive research and publications of Maha Sila Viravong. He transcribed the story from palm leaf manuscripts for publication by the Kasuang Thammakan (1949) which formed the basis for numerous subsequent editions and translations into other languages. Lao Isan (Northeast Thai) and Thai versions of the story have been retold, researched and published by several Thai authors since the 1920s.

Mural depicting a scene from Sang Sinsai at Wat Sanuan Wari Phatthanaram in Khon Kaen Province, Thailand
Mural depicting a scene from Sang Sinsai at Wat Sanuan Wari Phatthanaram in Khon Kaen Province, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Peter Whittlesey. Source: Sinxay.com 

However, the Thai text of Sang Sinchai in this manuscript differs significantly from the Lao and Lao Isan versions, as it features some different characters, with different names and a storyline inspired by an ancient legend of the Mon ethnic group with the title Sangada. The motif of a boy born with a conch shell also appears in a Buddhist tale entitled Suvannasankha Jātaka (Golden Conch Birth Story) belonging to the corpus of Paññāsa Jātaka.

The verse novel Sang Sinchai is little known today, despite the fact that it once inspired Thai kings and princes - King Rama II, King Rama III and Prince Naritsaranuwattiwong - to write dramatised adaptations of the story in the 19th and early 20th century.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
This article is an updated summary of “A Thai text of Sang Sinchai from the late Ayutthaya era” in Manuscript Cultures and Epigraphy of the Tai World, ed. Volker Grabowsky. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2022, pp. 225-254.

Further reading
Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit. 53 Suvaṇṇasaṅkha: The golden conch
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala and Somroay Yencheuy. Buddhist murals of Northeast Thailand. Reflections of the Isan heartland. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2010.
Jenny, Mathias. The story of Prince Sangada. A Mon legend in Southeast Asia context. The Mon over two millennia. Monuments, manuscripts, movements. Ed. Patrick McCormick, Mathias Jenny and Chris Baker. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University, 2011, pp. 147-167. 
Nangklao, King of Siam. Botlakhō̜n rư̄ang Sangsinchai. [Bangkok]: Rōngphim Sōphonphiphatthanākō̜n, 1929-30.
Naritsarānuwattiwong, Prince. Prachum bot lakhō̜n du’kdamban chabap lūang. [Bangkok]: Rōngphim Thai, 1924.
Phutthalœtlā Naphālai, Phra, King of Siam. Phrarātchaniphon bot lakhǭn rū’ang Sang Sinchai. Bangkok: Sophon, 1917.
Phutthalœtlā Naphālai, Phra, King of Siam. Bot lakhǭn nǭk rūam hok rư̄ang. Bangkok, 1922.
Sang Sinsai phap thī 1. [Transcript and foreword by Maha Sila Viravong]. Vientiane: Kasūang thammakān, 1949.
Songwit Phimphakō̜n et al. Sinsai sō̜ng fang Khōng. Khō̜n Kǣn: Sūn Khō̜mūn Lāo Mahāwitthayālai Khō̜nkǣn, 2014.
Whittlesey, Peter and Baythong S. Whittlesey, Sinxay. Renaissance of a Lao-Thai epic hero. [n.p.], Sinxay Press, 2015.

18 April 2022

The provenance histories of Batak manuscripts in the British Library (1): The British Museum collection to 1900

Provenance research is increasingly acknowledged as an essential part of the study of manuscripts, which was long dominated by a focus on the texts within.  More recently philological studies have increasingly been complemented by considerations of materiality, with an enhanced appreciation of materials, decorative elements, graphic layouts and paratextual elements.  Our understandings of writing cultures can be further enhanced by exploring the 'social life' of manuscripts (alluding to Arjun Appadurai's influential 1986 volume) and in particular the changing meanings of books through time and place as they were created, used, sold, seized, stolen, traded, discarded or treasured.

Following the digitisation of the complete collection of 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library, in collaboration with CMSC Hamburg University, this series of three blog posts attempts to trace the complex journeys that each manuscript undertook, from north Sumatra to London.  The task is also important for scholarly reasons, for Batak manuscripts are never dated, and therefore the date of acquisition is often the only firm evidence towards dating the manuscript, providing at the very least a latest possible date for the writing of the book. This first part considers manuscripts from the collections of the British Museum up to 1900. The second installment looks at Batak manuscripts from the India Office Library and Records, which joined the British Library in 1982. The third and final part presents more recent aquisitions up to the present.

Provenance note in a manuscript
Provenance note in Batak manuscript Add 11546, with the red 'British Museum' crown stamp. British Library, Add 11546 Noc

An important element of provenance research is understanding the system of shelfmarks or reference numbers used by libraries and museums, because often these offer clear indications of the likely date of acquisition. The British Museum was founded in 1753 through the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane, whose own manuscripts were assigned the shelfmarks 'Sloane MS 1-4100'.  Following the end of the Sloane sequence, subsequent manuscripts which entered the British Museum were given 'Additional' manuscript numbers, now abbreviated as 'Add', starting with Add MS 4101.  The first Batak manuscript to enter the British Museum, just a decade after its founding, was Add MS 4726, a pustaha or tree-bark book folded in concertina form, in Toba Batak script.  This is in fact the first known Batak manuscript to enter a European collection, and also gives us the earliest terminus ante quem or 'earliest latest date of writing' for any Batak manuscript (the complex formulation reflecting the difficulties of establishing chronological frameworks for Batak manuscripts). A black ink inscription on the first page identifies the donor: ‘Presented by Alexander Hall, Esq., 18 May 1764’.

Thanks to research by Ellen Filor (2014), Alexander Hall (1731/2-1764) can be identified as the youngest son of a Scottish aristocrat, James Hall, 2nd Baronet of Dunglass. Hall entered the East India Company in 1750 and was sent out as a factor or merchant to Fort Marlborough at Bengkulu (then called Bencoolen) on the west coast of Sumatra, and in 1753 was appointed assistant to the Resident at Natal, in Mandailing Batak territory. He is cited – in the context of a discussion of the cannibalism of the Bataks – in William Marsden’s History of Sumatra (1783, p. 303): ‘Mr. Alexander Hall made a charge in his public accounts of a sum paid to a raja as an inducement to him to spare a man whom he had seen preparing for a victim’. Hall returned to Britain in 1762 and unsuccessfully petitioned the Company to be transferred to Bengal. He departed again for India in 1763 and in September 1764 arrived back in Bengkulu, where he died two months later. As in May 1764 Hall would have been en route to Bengkulu, the Batak manuscript was probably brought to England in 1762, and then delivered to the British Museum either personally before he set sail again in 1763, or in 1764 by someone acting on his behalf.

Donation inscription of Alexander Hall, 18 May 1764. British Library, Add 4726
Inscription naming the donor as Alexander Hall, 18 May 1764. British Library, Add 4726, f. 19r, start of text on side b Noc

We have no information on how Alexander Hall acquired this manuscript. However, inscriptions on the book itself suggest an informed exchange enquiring into the contents of the book. On the first page is written with a European pen in Latin characters: ‘Ompoo Nee Ha ee doo punn / Harryen Soocoo nya / Punn ampoo Hee wrote this / Witness Raja Muntaggar’, which can be read in conjunction with the Batak text to understand that Ompu Ni Haidupan, of the clan Harean, wrote this panampuhi or text on the divination oracle through analysis of the cut slices of a lemon. 

Romanised inscription identifying the author and subject of this Batak manuscript. British Library, Add 4726
Romanised inscription identifying the author and subject of this Batak manuscript. British Library, Add 4726, f. 1r  Noc

The next two Batak manuscripts to enter the British Museum were both purchased from dealers who were major suppliers to the Museum. Add 11546 was bought in 1839 from Harry (Henry) Osborne Cureton (1785-1858), a dealer in coins and antiquities based at 81 Aldersgate, Barbican, London (see illustration at the top of this post).  Add 15678 was acquired in 1846 from Joseph Lilly (1804-1870), a well-known London bookseller.  No further information is available on where or how these manuscripts ended up in London.

A substantial collection of eight pustaha, Add 19378 to Add 19385, was purchased from a Dr E.G. Latham in 1853. Latham had received them from Baron Oscar von Kessel, who had travelled in the southern regions of Batak country from Tobing via Sipirok in south Tapanuli to Sigompulon in 1844 as part of a survey expedition (see von Kessel, 1856). A further manuscript, Or 2445, sold to the British Museum by Dr E. G. Latham in 1881, evidently came from the same source. The connection between Dr Latham and Baron von Kessel is not known.

One of the eight pustaha acquired in 1844 by Baron von Kessel in Mandailing territory, and sold to the British Museum in 1853 by Dr E. G. Latham. British Library, Add 19378, f. 53r
One of the eight pustaha acquired in 1844 by Baron von Kessel in Mandailing territory, and sold to the British Museum in 1853 by Dr E. G. Latham. British Library, Add 19378, f. 35r Noc

Or 5309 is a bamboo cylinder which was given to the British Museum by Lord Crawford in 1897. Ludovic Lindsay (1847-1913), 26th Earl of Crawford, inherited his father Lord Lindsay’s bibliophilia, including for Oriental manuscripts. Lord Lindsay had acquired a number of Batak pustaha from the sale of H.C. Millies in 1870, and Ludovic continued to seek out Batak and other Southeast Asian manuscripts. On 15 October 1897 he wrote to his librarian, instructing him to contact C.M. Pleyte at the booksellers Brill in Leiden, and: ‘Get all the Batak he [Pleyte] will let you have especially the Bamboo ones’ (Hodgson 2020: 1021). Is it therefore not rather surprising that Ludovic presented a bamboo Batak manuscript to the British Museum in this very year? The answer probably lies in its condition: Or 5309 is split in two halves. The placement of the old British Museum labels on the inside of the bamboo suggests that the manuscript was already broken when it arrived, and this is perhaps why Ludovic did not retain it in his collection, and instead donated it to the British Museum.

Bamboo manuscript, split into two halves. British Library, Or 5309
Bamboo manuscript, split into two halves. British Library, Or 5309 Noc

The next part of this blog will look at Batak manuscripts from the India Office Library collection.

Further reading:
Ellen Filor. Alexander Hall (c. 1731/2-1764) in Scotland and Sumatra. East India Company at Home, 1757-1857: The British country house in an imperial and global context. 2014.
John R. Hodgson, ‘Spoils of Many a Distant Land’: The Earls of Crawford and the collecting of Oriental manuscripts in the nineteenth century. The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 2020, 48(6): 1011-1047.
Oscar von Kessel, Reis in de Nog Onafhankelijke Batak-Landen van Klein-Toba, op Sumatra, in 1844. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1856, 4(1): 55-97.
M.C. Ricklefs, P. Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. New edition with Addenda et corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

04 April 2022

Ariya Metteyya, the Buddha of the future

Ariya Metteyya (Sanskrit: Maitreya), the future Buddha, is at the centre of some of the most beautiful illustrations in Thai Buddhist manuscripts. According to canonical scriptures, Ariya Metteyya is the fifth in the lineage of Buddhas (Tathāgata) of the current aeon, and successor of the 28 Buddhas of the past. Ariya means “noble”, and Metteyya is derived from the Pali word mātreyya which refers to “one's mother” and “motherloving”. The previous Buddha Gotama predicted in the Cakkavatti-sῑhanāda-sutta that Ariya Metteyya will be the Buddha of the future, following his rebirth in the human realm, renunciation of worldly life and attainment of enlightenment under a Naga tree (cobra saffron, Lat. Mesua ferrea).

The future Buddha, surrounded by deities in Tuṣita heaven
The future Buddha, surrounded by deities in Tuṣita heaven, illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipiṭaka and the story of Phra Malai, central Thailand, 1875. British Library Or 6630, f. 43  Noc

The story of the future Buddha appears in another canonical source entitled Buddhavaṃsa (chronicle of Buddhas) in the Khuddaka Nikāya. It gives details of the life of Buddha Gotama and the 24 Buddhas before him, as well as Ariya Metteyya.

An extra-canonical source that mentions the future Buddha is the Mahāvaṃsa (“Great Chronicle” of Sri Lanka), attributed to the monk Mahānāma. In this text, written in the 5th or 6th century CE, it is stated that Ariya Metteyya currently resides in the Tuṣita heaven as a deity called Natha-deva awaiting rebirth in the human realm.

Another source that describes the life, meritorious acts and attainment of enlightenment of Ariya Metteyya is known under the title Anāgatavaṃsa (account of the future), a work attributed to Ashin Kassapa (1160-1230 CE).

The future Buddha with a red aura (left) and deities (right
The future Buddha with a red aura (left) and deities (right) in a folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library Add MS 15347, f. 48  Noc

The above-mentioned sources brought knowledge of Ariya Metteyya from Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia. In the Thai Buddhist tradition, the future Buddha is also known as Phra Sri An. Exquisite paintings of him, often lavishly decorated with gold leaf, can be found in manuscripts containing the popular legend of Phra Malai, a monk-saint who was able to travel to the Buddhist heavens and hells as a result of his accumulated merit. The story is often included, among extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka, in Thai funeral and commemoration books from the 19th century. The oldest known extant manuscript containing this legend is a palm-leaf book in Northern Thai (Lanna) Dhamma script, dating back to 1516 CE (Brereton, 1993, p. 141)

Illustrations of Phra Malai with Indra at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and arrival of Ariya Metteyya with deities (right) from Tuṣita heaven
Illustrations of Phra Malai with Indra at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and arrival of Ariya Metteyya with deities (right) from Tuṣita heaven to pay reverence to the celestial stupa. Folding book from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library Or 14115, f. 59  Noc

One episode in this legend elaborates on Phra Malai’s visit to the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he meets the god Indra (Sakka) at the celestial stupa Chulamani Chedi. While the two are conversing, myriads of devatā (deities) and finally also the future Buddha appear from another heaven, Tuṣita, to pay reverence to the stupa. Ariya Metteyya then gives Phra Malai a message about the future of mankind, and advice to make merit and to listen to recitations of the Vessantara Jātaka for those who wish to be reborn in the era of the future Buddha.

The future Buddha with deities (right) and withayathon as flag-bearers (left)
The future Buddha with deities (right) and withayathon as flag-bearers (left) in a folding book with extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library Or 16101, f. 51  Noc

Although most illustrated Phra Malai manuscripts include the standardised pair of paintings showing the scene at the celestial stupa, Thai artists of the 19th century used many other options to depict Ariya Metteyya. In the image above one can see the future Buddha in an elaborately decorated red aura with two deities partially hidden in clouds (right), whereas on the left side the artist decided to paint male withayathon (Pali: vijjadhara, “keepers of knowledge”, in Thai also “scholars of magic”) as flag-bearers announcing the arrival of Ariya Metteyya.

Painted in a similar manner, but with more attention to detail and in extraordinary artistic quality, are the illustrations below showing the future Buddha in a red aura with six deities (right), and two female deities as flag-bearers (left).

The future Buddha in a large red aura (right) with deities as flag-bearers (left
The future Buddha in a large red aura (right) with deities as flag-bearers (left). Folding book with extracts from the Abhidhamma-piṭaka and Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1849. British Library Or 14838, f. 57  Noc

In the same manuscript, dated 1849, there is another - very unusual - illustration of the scene in Tāvatiṃsa heaven (shown below): as expected, on the left side is Phra Malai in conversation with Indra and another deity at the celestial stupa. However, on the right side, where normally the future Buddha appears, there is a female figure in a large red aura, floating on clouds in the sky. Like the future Buddha on the preceding folio, she is holding a lotus bud, symbol of imminent enlightenment, and she is accompanied by female deities – just in the same way Ariya Metteyya is usually depicted. We do not know if the painter aimed to express the thought that the future Buddha could be a woman, or whether they may have drawn inspiration from the idea of female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in esoteric Buddhism. Or perhaps it may have been the wish of the patrons, a mother and her two children, who commissioned this manuscript to make merit on behalf of the mother’s parents, and who expressed in the colophon their hope to attain enlightenment.

Phra Malai with Indra and another deity at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and female figure with red aura in place of the future Buddha (right) with deities
Phra Malai with Indra and another deity at the Chulamani Chedi (left) and female figure with red aura in place of the future Buddha (right) with deities. Folding book from central Thailand, 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 58  Noc

The story of Phra Malai concludes with Ariya Metteyya’s prediction of the deterioration of Buddhism and degeneration of mankind 5000 years after Buddha Gotama. This is then followed by the birth of the Buddha-to-be in an era in which the earth flourishes and humans are living meritorious lives free from suffering. The future Buddha promises to help all people to transcend saṃsāra - the cycle of birth, death and rebirth - through liberation from greed, hatred and delusion. Sometimes depictions of the blissful life in the future are included in Phra Malai manuscripts, like the example shown below where people are plucking gold jewellery from a wishing tree (left) and enjoying sweets while resting in the shade of a blossoming tree (right).

Illustrations of blissful life in the future era of Ariya Metteyya
Illustrations of blissful life in the future era of Ariya Metteyya. Folding book from central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14115, f. 75 Noc

Indeed, the hope of encountering Ariya Metteyya is frequently mentioned in a colophon on the last folio of Thai Buddhist manuscripts. The example below shows a detail from a colophon in a folding book dated 1882, which contains extracts from the Tipiṭaka and the legend of Phra Malai. The future Buddha is mentioned twice here: once called Phra Sri An (underlined orange) and once called Phra Sri Anriya (underlined red), both times referring to Ariya Metteyya.

Ariya Metteyya mentioned twice in the colophon of a folding book
Ariya Metteyya mentioned twice in the colophon of a folding book. Central Thailand, 1882. British Library, Or 15207, f. 91 Noc

The idea of Ariya Metteyya still enjoys great popularity among Buddhists in Thailand today, not least because it is part of the Thai Buddhist concept of a perfect world. It describes an idealised future state of society with prosperity, health, happiness, justice, righteousness and peace which is symbolically expressed through images of Ariya Metteyya in temple murals and sculptures. The examples below from three different Thai manuscripts show that depictions of the future Buddha are easily recognisable because they are highly standardised, although minor variations can be visible like the size of the aura, background, the number of accompanying deities and objects held in the hand of Ariya Metteyya.

Illustrations of the future Buddha in three Thai folding books
Illustrations of the future Buddha in three Thai folding books, from left to right: British Library Or 6630, f. 56 (dated 1875); British Library Or 14838, f. 42 (dated 1849); British Library Or 16710, f. 39 (19th century) Noc

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator of Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork

Further reading
Aphilak Kasempholkoon, Phra Sri An (Maitreya) as a hero: A structural analysis of Phra Sri An myths in Thai society. Manusya 14/3 (2011), pp. 21-32 
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Some comments on a northern Phra Malai text dated C.S. 878 (A.D. 1516). Journal of the Siam Society 81 (1993), pp. 141-5
Brereton, Bonnie Pacala, Thai tellings of Phra Malai: texts and rituals concerning a popular Buddhist saint. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona State University, 1995 
Saya U Chit Tin, assisted by William Pruitt, The coming Buddha Ariya Metteyya. 2nd revised ed. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992
Phramaha Inwong Issaraphani, Chantras Tapuling, Metteyya: The Concept of Ideal World in Buddhism. MCU Haripunchai Review 2/1 (2018), pp. 35–45.

14 March 2022

Lost and refound: a Batak note on bamboo to John Anderson

John Anderson (1795-1845) was a Scottish official of the East India Company who was based in Penang from 1813 to 1830. In February and March 1823 Anderson undertook a politico-commercial mission on behalf of the governor of Penang to various states along the east coast of Sumatra, including Deli, Asahan, Langkat and Siak, as well as venturing into Batak territories. His account of this journey was published a few years later, as Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra, in 1823, under the direction of the Government of Prince of Wales' Island: including historical and descriptive Sketches of the Country, an Account of the Commerce, Population, and the Manners and Customs of the Inhabitants, and a Visit to the Batta Cannibal States in the Interior, (Edinburgh, 1826).

Seated in the centre of this drawing is the Raja of Bunto Pane
Seated in the centre of this drawing is the Raja of Buntu Pane, in Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra in 1823 by John Anderson, first published in Edinburgh by William Blackwood, 1826; republished in facsimile (with coloured plates) in Kuala Lumpur by Oxford University Press, 1970; facing p. 143. According to Anderson, ‘The Drawings were executed by a Chinese draughtsman, under a great variety of impediments and disadvantages, sometimes in great haste, in a small boat.’

One of the local Sumatran rulers who Anderson encountered was the Batak Raja of Buntu Pane in Asahan (referred to in Anderson’s account as Munto Panei). In his book Anderson included a portrait of the ‘Rajah of Munto Panei’, seated on a mat surrounded by his weapons, a musical instrument and other accoutrements (see above). As Anderson was particularly interested in the market for British trade products, he noted carefully the dress of the Raja and his chiefs: ‘European chintz bajoos [baju, jacket], Buggues sarongs, and Acehen or Batubara trowsers, with neat handkerchief on their head, of Java or British manusfacture’ (Anderson 1826: 153). Anderson spent some time with the Raja of Bunto Pane, and when he finally took leave, the Raja ‘begged me to send him two dogs to catch deer; and in order that I might not forget his commission, he wrote upon a joint of bamboo, a memorandum to that effect in his own language, which I brought with me; also the numbers one to ten’ (Anderson 1826: 154).

Batak message inscribed on bamboo from the Raja of Bunto Pane to John Anderson, 1823, stored together with a small knife and four blowpipe darts
Batak message inscribed on bamboo from the Raja of Buntu Pane to John Anderson, 1823, stored together with a small knife and four blowpipe darts. British Library, MSS Batak 1 Noc

It is not known if Anderson did ever send the requested dogs, but he evidently presented his aide-memoire to the East India Company, for this ‘joint of bamboo’ appears to have been the first Batak manuscript to enter the India Office Library. Today it bears the shelfmark MSS Batak 1, and is stored together with a small knife and four darts from a blowpipe. A small piece of paper (originally) attached says ‘specimen of Batta writing, with a knife written and presented by J. Anderson, Esqr.'; the piece of paper is no longer present but a discoloured rectangle visible on the bamboo presumably indicated its location. It is not known whether the knife was that used to incise the writing on the bamboo; perhaps the darts (with poisoned tips) were the type that would have been used for hunting deer.

In 1848 the Dutch linguist Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk visited London and examined the six Batak manuscripts held in the India Office Library (MSS Batak 1-6). He wrote ‘A short account of the Batta manuscripts belonging to the Library of the East India Company’, the autograph manuscript of which is still in the British Library (MSS Eur B105: Download VanderTuuk1848). Van der Tuuk described the bamboo as being inscribed on the left side with the Batak words for the numbers from one to ten, written by the King of Buntu Pane at the request of Anderson, and on the right side with a memorandum to Anderson (called Darsen) asking him not to forget to send to the King of Buntu Pane two dogs from Penang.

Van der Tuuk's description of MSS Batak 1 in 1848
Van der Tuuk's description of MSS Batak 1, written in 1848. British Library, MSS Eur B105, f. 1r. Noc

on the left is the list of numbers, and following the vertical line to the right is the note to Andersen requesting two dogs to be sent from Penang. 1823
The start of the inscribed Batak texts, marked by decorative panels: on the left is the list of numbers, and following the vertical line to the right is the note to Andersen requesting two dogs to be sent from Penang, 1823. British Library, MSS Batak 1  Noc

However, when M.C. Ricklefs and P. Voorhoeve came to compile their landmark catalogue of Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain, first published in 1977, this manuscript was nowhere to be seen. They reached the gloomy conclusion: “This MS is now missing, and has probably decomposed since it was seen by van der Tuuk in 1848” (Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 12).

Happily, this was not actually the case. Soon after I joined the British Library in 1986, during a visit to the India Office Library and Records (at the time still housed in Blackfriars Road), my colleague Salim Qureishi, one of the IOLR curators, alerted me to a strange object he had found and asked if it was from my collection. It turned out to be the long-lost MSS Batak 1, which had simply been misplaced on another shelf. However Van der Tuuk’s description still proved invaluable, for in the intervening century the paper label, identifying J. Anderson as the donor, had disappeared.

Manuscripts are, by definition, unique witnesses to place and time. The loss of a manuscript can thus be a harrowing tragedy, as exemplified by the website Lost manuscripts: what happens when words disappear. Among the various types of losses explored in articles on this site – alongside Burned manuscripts, Eaten manuscripts and Stolen manuscripts – is the category of Misplaced manuscripts. MSS Batak 1 is clearly not alone in having been lost, and then re-found.

MSS Batak 1, and all other Batak manuscripts in the British Library, have recently been digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg.

Further reading:

M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

07 March 2022

Arabic Manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library

Today's guest post is by Prof. Andrew Peacock of the University of St. Andrews.

Despite the status of Arabic as the sacred language of Islam, and of Islamic law, across the Muslim world, surprisingly little is known about its history and textual production in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia. The first edition of the standard reference work on Arabic literature, Brockelmann’s Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur (1902, vol. 2, 422 ), lists only three texts from the region, and while its Supplement (1942, vol. 3, 628-9) adds a handful more, but these references are marred by errors such as confusing the African kingdom of Bornu on Lake Chad with Borneo. However, a significant tradition of composing as well as reading Arabic texts existed in Southeast Asia, but one which is scarcely known owing to the fact it is very little represented in western libraries.

The British Library holds a small but interesting collection of Arabic works from the region which illustrate some of their characteristics. A manuscript (Add 12367) from the royal library of the kingdom of Bone in South Sulawesi, seized in the British attack of 1814, contains two Arabic works by ‘Abu’l-Fath Yayha ‘Abd al-Basir al-Dariri, who is said by local tradition to have been an Arab who came to Sulawesi in 1678 and died there 1723. Both ‘Abd al-Basir’s works were dedicated to local rulers. The Bahjat al-Tanwir (‘The Beauty of Illumination’) was written at the behest of the sultan of Gowa (Makassar), Fakhr al-Din ‘Abd al-Jalil (r. c. 1677-1709), while the Daqa’iq al-Asrar (‘Subtleties of Secrets’) was written for a sultan of Bone, Idris A‘zam al-Din (1696-1714). Apart from the British Library manuscript, Add 12367, these works -which constitute our sole evidence for ‘Abd al-Basir’s activities – are known from only one other manuscript, also from the court of early nineteenth century Bone, now held in Jakarta (National Library of Indonesia, MS A 108; it is this manuscript which provides the title of Daqa’iq al-Asrar, missing in Add 12367).

‘Abd Basir al-Dariri’s Bahjat al-Tanwir, composed for Sultan ‘Abd al-Jalil of Makassar
‘Abd Basir al-Dariri’s Bahjat al-Tanwir, composed for Sultan ‘Abd al-Jalil of Makassar. British Library, Add 12367, fol. 28v Noc

As this very limited manuscript circulation suggests, Arabic literary production was primarily associated with royal courts, and scarcely circulated beyond them even within Southeast Asia. These characteristics are also suggested by a library from Buton in Southeast Sulawesi recently digitised by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, the Abdul Mulku Zahari collection (EAP212/2). This collection remains in the hands of the descendant of the hereditary secretaries to the sultans of Buton, and contains numerous works composed in Arabic by Sultan Muhammad ‘Aydarus of Buton (r. 1824-1851). Yet as far as we know, none of Muhammad ‘Aydarus’s Arabic works ever circulated beyond the island of Buton, and possibly not even beyond the court there. Even today, these Butonese Arabic works remain in private hands on the island, without even any copies in regional collections such as the National Library of Indonesia.

The Sabil al-Salam li-Bulugh al-Maram (‘Way of Peace to the Attainment of Desire’) by Sultan Muhammad ‘Aydarus of Buton
The Sabil al-Salam li-Bulugh al-Maram (‘Way of Peace to the Attainment of Desire’) by Sultan Muhammad ‘Aydarus of Buton (EAP 212/2/17)

Almost all the Arabic works known from Southeast Asia deal with Sufism. ‘Abd al-Basir’s Bahjat al-Tanwir, for instance, emphasises prayer, contemplation and the recitation of God’s name (dhikr) as means of attaining the divine presence. His Daqa’iq al-Asrar discusses similar themes while emphasising that attainment of the divine presence was only open to the elite of the elite (khass al-khawass). While this concept in Sufism has long roots stretching back to al-Ghazzali (d. 1111) and originally designated those who were especially advanced on the Sufi path in piety and understanding, in Southeast Asia it evidently attained distinctly political undertones as well. Sufism became embedded in local political systems; for instance, in the Bone sultanate admission to certain Sufi orders was banned to all but the nobles and the sultan. In Buton, the Sufi concept of the Seven Grades of Being was transposed into the political organisation of the sultanate, and the sultan was elected on the basis of his learning and Sufi credentials. One reason for the extensive Arabic production of Muhammad ‘Aydarus may have been to underline these credentials.

These Arabic works thus were intended for the consumption of a small political elite. Their composition in Arabic, rather than one of the numerous written local languages such as Makassarese or Bugis, or the regional lingua franca of Malay, was precisely because it was less readily understood. Although on occasion these works were later translated – again largely for a court audience - Arabic became a marker not just of possession of esoteric religious knowledge, but also of political power, as is also suggested by the consistent use of Arabic on royal seals in Sulawesi (Gallop 2019: 547-8).

The ending of ‘Abd al-Basir al-Dariri’s Daqa’iq al-Asrar, written for Sultan Idris A‘zam al-Din of Bone
The ending of ‘Abd al-Basir al-Dariri’s Daqa’iq al-Asrar, written for Sultan Idris A‘zam al-Din of Bone and dated the beginning of Safar 1126 (February 1714), which is followed immediately by a translation into Bugis. British Library, Add 12367, fol. 11r Noc

Works in Arabic were also composed specifically for Southeast Asian audiences by scholars in the Hijaz, of whom the most notable was Ibrahim al-Kurani of Medina (1615-1690), the towering figure of seventeenth century Islamic intellectual life. Al-Kurani attracted a circle of Southeast Asian students (known as al-Jawa), with some of whom he maintained a correspondence after their return to their homeland. In contrast to the very limited distribution of Southeast Asian Arabic works, al-Kurani’s fame ensured his answers to questions from the Jawa were widely read in the central Islamic lands. His best known work of this type was the Ithaf al-Dhaki bi-Sharh al-Tuhfa al-Mursala ila Ruh al-Nabi (‘Gifting of the Sagacious commenting on “The Gift Descended to the Prophet’s Spirit”'), a commentary on Sufi metaphysics, but in 1673 he also composed a work specifically responding to debates over Sufism that raged at the court of Aceh in North Sumatra, al-Maslak al-Jali fi Hukm Shath al-Wali (‘The Manifest Way to Judge the Ecstatic Utterances of the Saint’). The international interest such questions attracted is suggested by the British Library copy of this treatise, which comes from the royal Mughal library, seized by the British after the Mutiny in 1857 (Delhi Arabic 710, fol. 40b-51b).

al-Maslak al-Jali fi Hukm Shath al-Wali by Ibrahim al-Kurani. British Library, Delhi Arabic 710, ff. 40b-41a.
al-Maslak al-Jali fi Hukm Shath al-Wali by Ibrahim al-Kurani. British Library, Delhi Arabic 710, ff. 40b-41a. Noc

Further reading
Fathurahman, Oman, “New Textual Evidence for the Intellectual and Religious Connections between the Ottomans and Aceh” in A.C.S. Peacock & Annnabel Gallop [eds.]. From Anatolia to Aceh: Ottomans, Turks, and Southeast Asia (Oxford, 2015).
Peacock, A.C.S., “Arabic manuscripts from Buton, Southeast Sulawesi, and the literary activities of Sultan Muhammad ‘Aydarus (1824-1851),” Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 10 (2019): 44-83.
Gallop, Annabel Teh, Malay Seals from the Islamic World of Southeast Asia: Content, Form, Context, Catalogue (Singapore, 2019)

Andrew Peacock, University of St Andrews Ccownwork
This research was supported by the British Academy through a Mid-Career Fellowship.

28 February 2022

Covers of Batak pustaha manuscripts

The most distinctive type of Batak manuscripts from north Sumatra are the pustaha, folded concertina-style books written on treebark, which mostly contain notes on divination and magical formulae. Pustaha can vary considerably in length and size – those in the British Library collection range from the relatively large, with pages each 28 x 20 cm (Add 19378) to the tiny, measuring only 4.5 x 3 cm (such as MSS Batak 9). Simpler manuscripts may not have any special covers, ending just with the final leaves of treebark, but quite a few Batak pustaha have covers of wood. Sometimes these are finely carved, particularly on the front cover, but occasionally also on the back. Manuscripts may also have a plaited band made of split rattan or bamboo, which can be placed around the covers of the manuscript to clasp the book closed. Additionally, there may be two holes drilled into the top wooden cover for a string of ijuk fronds to be attached so that the manuscript could be carried or hung easily. Presented below are images of all the original covers of Batak pustaha in the British Library collection.

A beautifully carved wooden front cover.
MSS Batak 6, which mostly contains texts on divination in war, especially by use of rambu siporhas, divination based on the position of a double string thrown on the ground. This pustaha has a beautifully carved wooden front cover, but a plain wooden back cover. Noc

Full view of the finely carved wooden front cover of MSS Batak 6
Full view of the finely carved wooden front cover of MSS Batak 6. Noc

Although now severely abraded, it is clear that the front cover of this pustaha was elaborately carved with the figure of a lizard set within geometrical borders  The back cover is finely polished but plain
Although now severely abraded, it is clear that the front cover of this pustaha was elaborately carved with the figure of a lizard set within geometrical borders. The back cover is finely polished but plain. The pustaha still has its plaited clasp band and original carrying string. Add 19381. Noc

Front finely carved wooden cover  Back finely carved wooden cover.Unusually, this beautiful small pustaha has finely carved wooden covers for both the front (left) and back (right). As can be seen, the front cover has slighlyt angled top and bottom edges, to accommodate the two holes for the carrying string, while the bottom cover is rectangular in shape. The pustaha contains a text in Simalungun Batak on protective formulae. Or 11761 Noc

The wooden front cover has a decorative ridged spine, through which holes have been drilled for a carrying string
This pustaha, which appears to contain texts on protective magic (pagar), is one of a number collected by Baron Oscar von Kessel who travelled in the Batak country from Tobing vis Sipirok to Sigompulon in 1844. The wooden front cover has a decorative ridged spine, through which holes have been drilled for a carrying string. Add 19380. Noc

This is the oldest dateable Batak pustaha, which entered the collections of the British Museum in 1764
This is the oldest dateable Batak pustaha, which entered the collections of the British Museum in 1764. The shape of the plain front cover, with its ridged form along the spine, and with two holes for carrying strings, is echoed in many of the other manuscripts illustrated here. Add 4726. Noc

Although the front wooden cover of this pustaha is without decoration, it is artfully ridged in the middle to accomdate the holes for a carrying string, now lost
Although the front wooden cover of this pustaha is without decoration, it is artfully ridged in the middle to accomdate the holes for a carrying string, now lost. Before 1817. MSS Batak 5 Noc

Although the original carrying string is now lost, the pustaha still has its two original plaited bamboo bands to keep it closed
A similar ridged central spine can be seen on the front wooden cover of this pustaha, also with two holes at top and bottom. Although the original carrying string is now lost, the pustaha still has its two original plaited rattan bands to keep it closed. Add 19378. Noc

Add 19379 has two wooden covers and two plaited bamboo clasps, and – most rarely – its original thickly-twisted carrying string
Add 19379 has two wooden covers and two plaited rattan clasps, and – most rarely – its original thickly-twisted carrying string. Noc

Mss_batak_2_fse005r-ed  Small pustaha with carrying string

These two small pustaha both have carrying strings and plaited rattan bands around their plain wooden covers. On the left, MSS Batak 2 dates from before 1811; on the right, Or 6898 is a Karo Batak manuscript. Noc

Batak pustaha with battered wooden covers
The rather battered appearance of the wooden covers of this pustaha is reflected in the poor condition of the contents, as the manuscript has been broken in several places and then repaired. However it still retains its original plaited rattan clasp band. Or 12587 Noc

pustaha with very plain wooden covers, Or 13957  Small but tall Batak pustaha with wooden covers
On the left, this pustaha with very plain wooden covers, Or 13957, contains a text devoted to the art of waging war, written by a datu from the western shores of Lake Toba. On the right, MSS Batak 10 is an unusual example of a pustaha which is taller than it is wide. Although the covers are simple they are finely polished. Noc

Batak pustaha with damaged side  Or 11762 has one angled front cover, and unevenly folded leaves
Both these pustaha have only has one wooden cover on the front. Although the manuscript on the left (MSS Batak 7) is elegantly angled in the middle around the string holes, the side is badly damaged. On the right, Or 11762 has one angled front cover, and unevenly folded leaves, yielding pages of different sizes. Noc

Or 16997 has a pair of completely plain wooden covers, with the holes visible in the top cover
Or 16997 has a pair of completely plain wooden covers, with the holes visible in the top cover. Noc

Pustaha with carrying handle is made of a piece of goatskin. MSS Batak 4
Like most of the manuscripts above, this pustaha has two wooden covers, with a ridge along the top cover with two holes, but in this case, uniquely, the carrying handle is made of a piece of goatskin. MSS Batak 4 Noc

Pustaha with goat skin cover
This is one of the most unusual covers of a pustaha, being made entirely of goat skin, with a wrap-around ‘envelope flap’ which recalls the Islamic tradition of leather book bindings. MSS Batak 3 Noc

Mss_batak_8_fse005r-ed  Small pustaha with price label
These two small pustaha do not have wooden covers, and their final leaves of treebark function as the outer covers. Although it is not known exactly when they were acquired by the India Office Library, the style of handwriting of the price tag suggests it was written around 1900; the sum of one pound and ten shillings charged for each manuscript then would be equivalent to £175 today. MSS Batak 8 and MSS Batak 9 Noc

Pustaha without wooden cover Pustaha with no cover
Add 11546 (left) and Add 15678 (right) also do not have additional covers, with the final leaves functioning as the outer covers for both manuscripts. Noc

Pustaha with no covers
While the pustaha shown above were evidently created without covers, others held in the British Library are now in a damaged condition and probably lost their covers – and perhaps also other pages – some time ago. Or 16998 Noc

Pustaha with modern leather cover Pustaha with modern wooden covers
All the manuscripts shown further above have original covers, but some pustaha in the British Library have had covers added more recently. These leather covers (left, Add 19385) and the wooden covers (right, Add 19384) were probably added in the British Museum following acquistion in 1853. Noc

As long as it can be ascertained that they are original products of Batak culture, even the relatively plain wooden covers of pustaha are of interest in contributing to our knowledge of Batak craftsmanship, especially because in many western institutions ‘improvements’ made in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the addition of new covers, have served to obliterate the look and ‘feel’ of the original manuscript. Rene Teygeler has reported, based on information gathered by Voorhoeve: ‘When the collection of Van der Tuuk entered Leiden University Library in 1896 all the pustaha that had no covers were provided with new ones. Today only two manuscripts of this collection still have the original boards. From the entire collection ’ And from the entire collection of Leiden University Library, only 23 of the 200 pustaha have one or both original covers’ (Teygeler 1993: 597). By comparison, of the 33 pustaha in the British Library, all save three are in original condition, with or without covers. Of these 30 in original condition, 18 have covers of wood or leather, and all of these have been illustrated above.

All the pustaha and other Batak manuscripts in the British Library have recently been digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures of the University of Hamburg. A full list of the digitised Batak manuscripts can be found here.

Further reading:
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra. Manuscript cultures, 2020, 14.
R. Teygeler, Pustaha: a study into the production process of the Batak book. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149(3): 593-611.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork
All photographs by Elizabeth Hunter, Senior Imaging Technician

22 February 2022

Technical challenges of digitising Batak manuscripts

The main aim of manuscript digitisation programmes in the British Library is to enable books and documents to be viewed and read online, freely and fully, from anywhere in the world, without the need to travel long distances to the Library’s reading rooms in London to consult the original objects. Photography for digitisation aims to capture the full object, from cover to cover, including blank pages, so that viewers can be confident that they are seeing every detail that would be visible if they were to consult the manuscript ‘in real life’. In many cases, the very high resolution images and zoom facilities of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal enable aspects of the manuscript to be studied even more easily than through a personal inspection. What digitisation cannot capture though, of course, is the materiality of the manuscript: what it feels like to touch, what it weighs, what it smells like, and how it opens and closes. Such material features are particularly important in the case of Batak manuscripts, which are all written on organic materials which have not been highly processed.

Batak pustaha, written on a strip of tree bark folded concertina-style, with two wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string. British Library, Or 11761
Batak pustaha, written on a strip of tree bark folded concertina-style, with two wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string. British Library, Or 11761 Noc

The British Library’s collection of 37 Batak manuscripts has just been fully digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg. The collection mostly comprises pustaha, manuscript books written on long strips of treebark that are folded concertina-style, and often provided with two wooden covers. Batak script is read from left to right, and the text is written in lines parallel to the folds of the book. In practice, the Batak scribes actually wrote the text – whether on treebark books, or pieces of bamboo – vertically from bottom to top (Kozok 2009: 35), and this probably explains why most illustrations in pustaha are oriented at 90 degrees to the direction of writing, as shown below. Therefore, reading an illustrated Batak manuscript ‘in real life’ involves rotating the book as necessary, an experience which is not possible to replicate in the current British Library Digitised Manuscripts portal.  However, over the next few years, all the digitised Batak manuscripts will be migrated to the British Library's more flexible Universal Viewer, which allows rotation of images and uses the IIIF (International Image Interoperability Format) standard.  This allows users to choose different viewers and tools to interact with cultural heritage content, and enables the comparison and annotation of digital content. 

Batak script is written and read from left to right, but the Batak scribe would have held the strip of bark widthways as shown above, and written the text from bottom to top, whilst drawing the illustrations from his current perspective. British Library, Add 19381, f. 119v
Batak script is written and read from left to right, but the Batak scribe would have held the strip of bark widthways as shown above, and written the text from bottom to top, whilst drawing the illustrations from his current perspective. British Library, Add 19381, f. 119v Noc

In the digital portal, Batak manuscripts are presented in the correct orientation for reading the script from left to right, but this means that the orientation of the illustrations is usually perpendicular to the direction of writing. British Library, Add 19382, f. 11r
In the digital portal, Batak manuscripts are presented in the correct orientation for reading the script from left to right, but this means that the orientation of the illustrations is usually perpendicular to the direction of writing. British Library, Add 19382, f. 11r Noc

Some older pustaha which have previously been damaged may have been repaired by being sewn together. Sometimes these older sections may be missing parts of the text, and even be orientated in the opposite direction (upside down) to the rest of the manuscript. When reading a Batak pustaha ‘in real life’, it is easy to work out what has happened. But when reading a digitised manuscript online, when a page with text in one direction is followed by a page with a different text, presented upside down – as in Or 12587, shown below – it is easy to assume that there has been a mistake in processing the digital images. Therefore in photographing the Batak manuscripts, care was taken to ensure that a few lines of the preceding or following page are always visible in each image, so that anyone reading the digital manuscripts can be reassured that they are really seeing the manuscript as it is.

Batak pustaha, with a text copied by Guru Morhabong Aji, with a few lines visible of the next page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 44r.
Batak pustaha, with a text copied by Guru Morhabong Aji, with a few lines visible of the next page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 44r. Noc

The next image of the same Batak pustaha has text upside down.
The next image of the same Batak pustaha has text upside down. However, checking carefully the two lines of text visible at the top from the preceding page, with a portion of the drawing of a square, confirms that this is indeed the following page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 45r. Noc

In published catalogues of Batak manuscripts, scholarly convention generally refers to the two sides of a pustaha as sides A and B, with the pages numbered from ‘1’ on each side (Putten and Zollo 2020: 90). However, in digitising Batak manuscripts at the British Library, we were severely constrained by the strict filenaming conventions associated with the Digitised Manuscripts portal. This portal had been originally developed about ten years ago for a Greek manuscripts project, and was therefore predicated upon the norm of manuscripts in codex form, with folios or leaves each consisting of two pages, the first (recto) and second (verso). While the portal had successfully been adapted for Malay manuscripts in Arabic script, reading from right to left, Batak pustaha in concertina form brought their own challenges, for we were not able to assign filenames of the form ‘A 1’ or ‘B 2’ for Batak manuscripts. As our priority was to ensure that the images were presented on the portal in the correct order, replicating the actual manuscript, we devised a system whereby all the pages of side A were assigned ‘recto’ image numbers, while side B images were numbered in the same consecutive sequence, but as ‘verso’ images. Thus a pustaha with 34 leaves would have images on side A numbered f001r to f034r to represent pages A 1 to A 34, while after turning the manuscript over onto side B, pages B 1 to 34 would be numbered f035v to f068v. This unconventional ‘manipulation’ of the existing filenaming system has allowed us to present the images in the correct order, but it means the filenames of each image are not easily correlated with the contents lists in catalogue information.

The beginning of a text on protective magic
The beginning of a text on protective magic, pagar balik hontas na bolon, described in Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977: 14) as beginning on page B 1, but with the image filename f033v. British Library, MSS Batak 5, f. 33v Noc

Some Batak bamboo manuscripts presented different problems. Or 5309 is a bamboo cylinder inscribed with a Batak syllabary and a few other writing exercises, which was given to the British Museum by Lord Crawford in 1897.  As Ludovic Crawfurd was an avid collector of Batak manuscripts, especially bamboo ones, this one was probably given away because it was already broken into two at the time. On both sides of the cylinder, the split has occurred across a line of text, but the two pieces of bamboo have warped so much over time that it was not easy to fit them back together for digitisation. Indeed, it took the combined efforts of the digitisation team (pictured below) to help to prop the two pieces together, and rotate them slowly, to allow the text to be read.

Bamboo inscribed with a Batak text, in two pieces and warped, carefully positioned together so that the text across the break could be read.
Bamboo inscribed with a Batak text, in two pieces and warped, carefully positioned together and held in place so that the letters along the break could be read. British Library, Or 5309 Noc

_L2C0668
The team effort to position the two parts of Batak manuscript Or 5309 together for photography: from left to right, conservator Samantha Cawson, curator Annabel Gallop, photographer Elizabeth Hunter, and digitisation officer Adelaida Ngowi. Photograph by Eugenio Falcioni, 20 January 2022.

This blog post has tried to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse of some the technical problems we had to wrestle with in the course of digitising the collection of Batak manuscripts in the British Library. Every single manuscript was checked before digitisation by Conservator Samantha Cawson, who cleaned the manuscripts and made some essential repairs. Next the manuscripts were all photographed by Senior Imaging Technician Elizabeth Hunter, who had to learn a little about Batak script so she could be sure to position the manuscripts correctly. The digital images were then all checked by Digitisation Officer Adelaida Ngowi, who looked at image quality, focus and orientation, and ensured that the filenames correlated with the intended sequencing of images. As curator, I was responsible for creating online catalogue records for all the manuscripts, based on the published catalogue (Ricklefs, Voorhoeve and Gallop 2014), and for checking all the manuscripts as they were published online. We are also very grateful to our colleagues at Hamburg University and elsewhere who enabled this project, in particular Michael Friedrich, Arlo Griffiths, Jan van der Putten, Roberta Zollo, Christina Kaminski and Karsten Helmholz. We hope you will enjoy browsing through the digitised manuscripts, which are all listed here.

References:
Uli Kozok, Surat Batak: sejarah perkembangan tulisan Batak. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; KPG, 2009. (Naskah dan dokumen Nusantara; Seri XVII).
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, ‘The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra.’ Manuscript cultures, 14, 2020.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient,Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014. [Includes a facsimile of the 1977 edition.]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

18 February 2022

Batak manuscripts in the British Library digitised in collaboration with Hamburg University

The British Library holds the oldest dateable Batak manuscript (Add 4726), which entered the British Museum collections in 1764. Until recently, this was the only Batak manuscript in the Library accessible online. However, the complete collection of 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library has now been fully digitised, thanks to a collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg. The digitization was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany´s Excellence Strategy – EXC 2176 ‘Understanding Written Artefacts: Material, Interaction and Transmission in Manuscript Cultures’, project no. 390893796. A full list of the digitised manuscripts is available on the Digital Access to Batak Manuscripts page.

Pustaha in Mandailing Batak script, with many drawings in red and black ink, before 1844. British Library, Add 19381
Pustaha in Mandailing Batak script, with many drawings in red and black ink, before 1844. British Library, Add 19381 Noc

The Batak peoples of north Sumatra live in the mountainous area around Lake Toba, and comprise a number of ethno-linguistic subgroups. The Angkola-Mandailing traditionally live in the area south of the lake; the Toba Batak, who are the largest groups, live in the central lake agrea; the Dairi-Pakpak are found to the west; the Karo to the north; and the Simalungun to the north-east. Originally animist but with Hindu influences evident in their religious practices, in the course of the 19th century nearly all the Batak peoples came under the sway of Muslim or Christian (Protestant) missionaries.

Map of Batak regions
The Batak regions of north Sumatra, showing how the different ethno-linguistic groupings are clustered around Lake Toba. [Map from Putten and Zollo 2020: 10.]

The Batak are associated with a distinctive writing culture, with manuscripts written on a range of organic materials, primarily tree bark, bamboo and bone, in a variety of Batak languages and forms of the script linked to the different ethnic groups. The Batak script (surat Batak) is derived from the Indian Brahmi script, and is written from left to right with evenly-spaced letters, without longer divisions between words or sentences.

Most characteristic of Batak manuscripts are the bark books known as pustaha, written on strips of bark of the alim (Aquilaria malaccensis) tree, folded concertina-fashion, some with beautifully carved wooden covers. These pustaha were the private notebooks of datu or shaman, and contain texts on divination and white and black magic, often with illustrations. The language used in the pustaha is an archaic form of the Batak language called hata poda, ‘the language of instruction’, invariably mixed with regional words and elements of Malay.

Pustaha in Toba Batak script with a text on purbuhitan, divination from the stars; before 1918. British Library, Or 8196
Pustaha in Toba Batak script with a text on pangarambui, divination based on the observation of signs in the sky; before 1918. British Library, Or 8196 Noc

Simalungun Batak pustaha with two finely carved wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string tied through two holes on the front cover. British Library, Or 11761
Simalungun Batak pustaha with two finely carved wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string tied through two holes on the front cover. British Library, Or 11761  Noc

Manuscripts on bamboo could take the form of whole pieces several joints or nodes in length, or splints made from split bamboo. Texts found on bamboo may also be on divinatory practices, such as calendars, or may comprise letters or notes.

Or_16736-ed
Divination text in Karo Batak script inscribed on a bamboo container, which has a wooden lid. British Library, Or 16736 Noc

Shoulder and rib bones of water buffaloes were also used as writing materials, and often contain magical or amuletic drawings alongside writing.

A piece of bone inscribed on one side with Batak text

A piece of bone inscribed with magical drawings
A piece of bone inscribed on one side with Batak text, and on the other with magical diagrams including the ‘Ring of Solomon’ in the centre. British Library, Or 13330 A Noc

Of the 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library, there are 33 pustaha of folded treebark, three inscribed pieces of bamboo, and one manuscript comprising two bone amulets. The tradition of compiling pustaha and other manuscripts had already begun to die out from the mid-19th century onwards under pressure from initially Muslim, soon followed by German Protestant Christian, missionary efforts. However since the early 20th century there has also a been a thriving industry of creating ‘new’ Batak manuscripts for sale to tourists.

It has been estimated that around 2,000 Batak manuscripts are preserved today in public and private collections around the world. Perhaps the largest number in any one country are in Germany, home to about 580 Batak manuscripts, owing to the historically prominent role of German Protestant missionaries in Batak lands. The recent publication of a detailed and fully illustrated catalogue of 54 Batak manuscripts, together with state-of-the-art essays on Batak history and writing culture (Putten and Zollo 2020), is a major contribution to Batak studies, and highlights the important role of the the CSMC of Hamburg University in developing and supporting scholarship on Batak manuscripts.

HORAS!

Further reading
Uli Kozok, Bark, bones, and bamboo: Batak traditions of Sumatra. Illuminations: writing traditions of Indonesia, ed. Ann Kumar & John H. McGlynn. Jakarta: Lontar Foundation, 1996; pp.231-246.
Uli Kozok, Surat Batak: sejarah perkembangan tulisan Batak. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; KPG, 2009. (Naskah dan dokumen Nusantara; Seri XVII).
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, ‘The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra.’ Manuscript cultures, 14, 2020.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient,Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.
R. Teygeler, Pustaha: a study into the production process of the Batak book. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149(3): 593-611.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

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