THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

3 posts from January 2020

27 January 2020

Buddhism on the ground

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A manuscript in Sanskrit and Newari, showing how to set up an altar. EAP790/1/1

A European scholar of Buddhism, Edward Conze, once said of Buddhist monks that "they are the only Buddhists in the true sense of the word." He went on to say that life outside of the monastery was "incompatible with the higher levels of the spiritual life." This prejudice might be less common these days, but it has influenced generations of scholarship, and limited the kinds of Buddhism that scholars have studied.

Along with thinking that monks are the only true representatives of Buddhism, there has been a tendency to see the ethical and philosophical teachings of the Buddha as "pure" Buddhism, and everything else as falling away from this ideal. So rituals, chanting, storytelling, the making of amulets and casting of spells, have often been neglected in the study of Buddhism.

This attitude has started to change in recent years, but where are we to look for a different story of Buddhism? I would suggest that some of the best resources are projects that have been funded by the Endangered Archives Programme. For example, over the last seven years, the scholar Shanker Thapa has been digitising and cataloguing the personal manuscript collections of Nepalese tantric practitioners known as Vajracharyas

The Vajracharyas are family lineages, who pass down traditions of Buddhist tantric empowerment and meditation, and services to the local community, such as rituals for protection and prosperity. The image above is from a manuscript belong to Mr Gyankar Vajracharya, who lives in Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. It shows how to set up an altar for a ritual. Another page from the same manuscript shows the nagas, serpent spirits who live in river and lakes, and are responsible for rainfall. Buddhists have provided the service of making rain to their local communities for centuries. 

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Manuscript page showing nagas, or serpent spirits. EAP790/1/1

This manuscript, along with the others in Gyankar Vajracharya's collection, which he generously allowed to be digitised, help us to understand the repetoire of a Buddhist ritual specialist in the Kathmandu Valley. 

Another EAP project has worked with a very different group of Buddhist ritual specialists, in the Pin Valley in India, some 1000 km northwest of Kathmandu. Between 2012 and 2015 the documentary photographer Patrick Sutherland worked with these ritual specialists, called Buchen, to document their practices, their books, and the other material culture of their profession. The Buchen offer rituals for healing, protection and exorcism, and also teach Buddhism to villagers through story, music and dance.

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Thangka of the life story of Padmasambhava EAP749/2/2/2

One of the Buchen is Meme Chettan Dorje. He worked with Sutherland to document his whole collection of manuscripts, paintings, and ritual implements. As  storytellers, the Buchen use the biographies of Buddhist heroes and saints to impart religious messages to their audience.

The Tibetan painting, or thangka above shows the story of Padmasambhava, a legendary master of miracles who is said to have established Buddhism to Tibet. In Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava is both an example of the state of enlightenment itself, and a culture hero. The thangka is used by Meme Chettan Dorje to tell stories for the childhood of Padmasambhava. The figure of Padmasambhava is in the middle, surrounded by illustrations of key events from his life. When telling these stories, Meme Chettan Dorje uses a metal pointer to point to specific parts of the thangka.

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A metal pointer. EAP749/2/3/8

The Buchen's storytelling is based on Tibet's rich literary tradition. This 19th-century manuscript contains one of several version of Padmasambhava's life story. The worn state of the manuscript, including the repair written with a modern pen, clearly shows that all of Meme Chettan Dorje's objects are part of a living tradition, made to be used.

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A manuscript containing the life story of Padmasambhava. EAP749/2/1/1

In traditional collections, these three objects - painting, implement and manuscript - might well end up in three different institutions, with the connections between them almost entirely erased. This collection is different because it comes out of working directly with representatives of the living tradition. Both of these two EAP collections show how it is possible to document a tradition in a way that is more true to those who practice it, whether as an insider or an outsider to the tradition itself. Whatever Edward Conze once said, there are many kinds of Buddhism and many ways of being a Buddhist. 

Further reading

  • Edward Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, originally published 1951. Modern edition: Dover Publications, 2003.
  • Shanker Thapa, Newar Buddhism: History, Scholarship and Literature, Nagarjuna Publications, 2005.
  • Patrick Sutherland, Spiti, the Forbidden Valley, Network Photographers, 2010.

Post written by Sam van Schaik, Head of the Endangered Archives Programme

20 January 2020

Using Urdu Periodicals to Uncover Women's Voices in India

In this post, Sabera Bhayat, a PhD student at the University of Warwick tells us how she has used EAP digital collections in her research on Urdu periodicals, which she has just presented at the Print Unbound conference earlier this month.

Planning a PhD project, which includes an ambitious list of primary sources, can raise concerns of practicality over comprehensiveness. Besides the many primary materials located in various archives both in India and the UK, I had discovered a number of Indian vernacular language periodicals that would be particularly relevant to my own research.

My research examines the discursive history of polygamy in India from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. I explore how polygamy was invented as a specifically ‘Muslim’ problem, and how this problem was then articulated by different groups in South Asia during this period. A major element of my research includes Indian Muslim women’s own discourses on polygamy, and how they sought change to such practices within a wider movement for their social reform. As few women were literate during this time and fewer still left written records, a major source for accessing these women’s voices was the Urdu periodical, which had been established for the very purpose of promoting female education and social reform.

However, these Urdu language periodicals were scattered between several archives in India, which would have included much time travelling between distant locations. It is by chance, and a simple internet search, that I came across the extensive project of the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) at the British Library. I was thrilled to find that the very Urdu periodicals that I was hoping to consult for my research had been digitised and were available to consult online, at my own pace and in my own time.

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Tahzib-i nisvan (Volume 35, Issue 19) [1932] EAP566/2/1/21/19

One of the periodicals that has been essential to my research, called Tahzib un-Niswan, (The Women’s Reformer) (EAP566/2/1), had been published bimonthly over fifty years, with over a thousand issues printed between 1898 and 1950. To have taken even a sample of these from each year would have taken much time. However, I was delighted to find that over nine hundred issues had been digitised and were available for me to consult online. This meant I could easily browse through as many issues as I had time for. As one of the more radical mouthpieces of the Indian Muslim women’s movement during the early twentieth century, Tahzib un-Niswan provides insights into the awakening to a Muslim feminist consciousness and campaigns for the acquisition of women’s rights.

Besides Tahzib un-Niswan, EAP has made available a range of Urdu periodicals from South Asia, including issues of Ismat (Modesty) [1908-1993] (EAP566/1/2) and Khatun (Lady/Gentlewoman) [1904-1914] (EAP566/5/1). These two periodicals were also instrumental in the promotion of female education for Muslim women during the early twentieth century and their social reform.

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Ismat (Volume 52, Issue 3) [1934] EAP566/1/2/6/1

Khatun

Khatun (Volume 3, Issue 1) [1906] EAP566/5/1/1/1

The convenience of accessing digitised materials through EAP has been very useful to my research and enabled me to deliver a talk at the Print Unbound Conference early this year. This conference, organised by Contextual Alternate, brought together a range of scholars working with newspapers and periodicals from Asia. This gave me the opportunity to share my research on Urdu periodicals and the role they played in the Indian Muslim women’s movement during the first half of the twentieth century. The research conducted for this paper was made possible almost entirely through access to the Urdu periodicals digitised through EAP. 

Exploring the material made available through EAP has also alerted me to further sources both in Hindi and Urdu that I would otherwise have not known about and that I plan to consult for further research into the history of women in India. These include a range of Hindi language periodicals and published literature that will further enrich my research and bring light to women’s voices that may otherwise have been lost.

Blog written by Sabera Bhayat, a third year PhD student in the History Department, at the University of Warwick

If you are just starting your PhD and would like to attend one of the British Library's Doctoral Open Days, please check the website for dates throughout 2020.

02 January 2020

Beyond Digitisation: Engaging the Community Around The Barbados Mercury

While digitisation of the Barbados Mercury (EAP1086) was completed in December 2018, it was not an endpoint. It allowed the Barbados Archives to initiate a series of workshops and initiatives aiming to involve the public, and promote the study and mining of the newspaper for further research.

Covering the years from 1783 to 1848, the Mercury is an important primary source for understanding life in a slave-holding British colony. It covers every aspect of life in Barbados during these decades. Although it reflects the worldview of the (white) planter and merchant class, reading the newspaper between the lines and against the grain allows us to get glimpses of the dystopian reality on the island.

Considering that several sources covering the 18th and 19th centuries are not readily accessible, either because they are fragile, or because they lack finding aids, or simply because they have been destroyed or lost, the information contained in Mercury can help us reconstruct many aspects of the history of that period: economic, military, social and cultural, gender, maritime, as well as geography and material culture.

One of the most important set of information is the “runaway slaves” ads appearing frequently in Mercury’s pages. They are important because they offer descriptive information about enslaved individuals for whom usually there is very little in the archives. Ads contain a variety of identifying information, such as names, age, appearance, skin colour, clothes, skills, accent, any distinguishing features, including “marks of their country” or signs that are obviously a result of violence (e.g., missing limbs, scars). More importantly, these ads offer information about relatives and friends that can allow us to reconstruct networks of the enslaved.

In March 2019, a new collaboration between the Barbados Archives and the Early Caribbean Digital Archive resulted in giving start to the “Barbados Runaway Slaves Digital Collection,” an initiative that as a first step aims to bring together all the “runaway slaves” ads in the newspaper and their transcriptions. The Early Caribbean Digital Archive, based at Northeastern University in Boston, aims to make accessible material related to black, enslaved and indigenous people of the Caribbean, and use the digital archive as a site of revision and for exploring ways to decolonise the archive.  The collaboration was officially initiated through a series of workshops and events in May 2019.

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Mercury Runaways workshop, October 2019

These inaugural workshops were followed by monthly workshops during the fall and winter of 2019. The format of the workshops consisted of an introduction to the Mercury and its digitisation, and the aims of the workshop; overview of the Endangered Archives Programme portal and instructions about how to access and navigate the interface; instructions about doing the transcriptions and saving the documents; time for participants to do the transcriptions either alone or in a group; and finally a group discussion where people could present something interesting they had come upon in the ads they were transcribing, or any other related topic.

Workshops were led by Amalia S. Levi, archivist and project leader for EAP1086, Nicholas Mayers, genealogical researcher, and Dr. Tara Inniss, lecturer at the History Department at the University of West Indies, Cave Hill campus. Workshops were held in the evening to facilitate participation by all age levels. We arranged two of the workshops to fit two courses of Dr. Inniss, so that students in history and heritage studies at UWI were able to attend the workshops.

It was moving to see people interact with the digitised copies of the archival material during the workshops, especially as they realised that it was a source of rich information for understanding the Barbadian past, particularly in terms of genealogical research. This is important because many people are not aware of the many ways their enslaved ancestors resisted slavery to seek freedom. Discussions at the end of the workshops were lively. Participants wanted to share the many—often dreadful—human stories contained in the ads and in the pages of the newspaper. Discussions also allowed people to speak about a past that is often too painful to deal with.

About a dozen people sit in a horseshoe looking at their laptops.

Mercury Runaways workshop, November 2019

As workshops showed, engaging the public through consistent involvement creates community, and incentivises people to work together to research their history. We are committed to continue engaging the public in this work through regular monthly meetings. At this stage, we were interested in transcriptions, while at a later stage we hope to enrich these human stories with contextual information, and possibly construct a database out of them. We would also like to engage the public in more creative ways of interacting with the ads (for example, writing short stories, sketching a portrait or an artwork and other creative ways).

Blog written by Amalia S. Levi and Nicholas Mayers