THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

86 posts categorized "Asia"

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

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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.

06 December 2019

Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques & Approaches - a training workshop offered by Jadavpur University, School for Cultural Texts and Records

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A man standing by a blackboard and giving a presentation

We decided to inaugurate the webpage of our project EAP1247 – Songs of the Old Madmen – with a short piece about the first concrete step towards the creation of our digital archive. Our first tangible accomplishment would not have been possible without the support of the EAP1247 grant and our local archival partner at SCTR, Jadavpur University. We are grateful to the entire team, who generously shared their knowledge and expertise during an intensive four-day training workshop. In this piece, we will discuss the structure of the training workshop and some of its outcomes -- hoping to provide some useful information and experiences for future EAP grant holders and workshop organisers.

The poster advertising the workshop

The training workshop ‘Building Digital Archives: Tools, Techniques& Approaches’ consisted of both theoretical and practical sessions. Eminent speakers presented critical topics of archival ethics and methodologies. Hands-on modules and laboratory group work provided a well-balanced preparation for the future generations of digital humanists. We recommend to future grant holders that they start their project with a training workshop with the local archival partners, to gather the necessary knowledge and familiarize with the international standards of digital archiving processes, but also to make sure that all the team members and collaborating institutions are on the same page!

Our training workshop was open and free for all local students and invited scholars. It offered the opportunity for students and scholars of other departments and institutions within and beyond Kolkata (some participants came all the way from Bangladesh) to partake in the valuable experience and extraordinary expertise of faculty staff and research fellows from the School of Cultural Texts and Records. They have been conducting digitisation projects since 2003 and have completed six projects funded by the Endangered Archives Programme. Jadavpur University has been recognized among the top 10 institutions in the world in the field of digital humanities. We feel fortunate to have worked with such a  fantastic archival partner!

The workshop started with a lecture by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri (EAP127, EAP261) who introduced us to the past, present, and future of digital humanities at Jadavpur University, an institution that is adamant about protecting academic freedom in these challenging times of bigotry and governmental intrusion in the field of education and research. He showed successful examples (see Bichitra) and ongoing projects that transform disturbingly neglected cultural texts and vernacular manuscripts into binary code, where everything, from words to sounds, is translated, reduced to, and stored as, zeros and ones. What we found particularly inspiring was Prof. Chaudhuri’s reminder that there are no sacrosanct specifications in the realm of digital archives: one can always suggest innovations, if these worked as solutions for a particular kind of endangered material.

A woman presenting at the workshop a slide of a map is in the background

Professor Anuradha Chanda’s lecture focused on the practical challenges, limitations, and problematic issues that emerged during her fieldwork, aimed at collecting Sylheti Nagri manuscripts in Northeast India and Bangladesh (see EAP071 for her EAP project). These manuscripts are kept hidden from orthodox Islamic authorities which contain esoteric and antinomian teachings in a distinctive script of the regional Bengali variant. These little-known texts, were supposed to be written for womenfolk in a simplified alphabet, but Prof. Anuradha Chanda’s research revealed a more complex (hi)story. The historical, literary, and symbolic value that Prof. Chanda and her team attributed to the preservation of these texts triggered a response among the local community, who started a popular movement of revaluation of their cultural heritage. This incident shows that the creation of digital archives does not exist in a vacuum of social power, but rather, it is always entangled with local cultural histories and hierarchies, and it has a direct impact on the field in which it operates. Her fieldwork involved a great deal of grassroots networking, negotiation in the politics of cultural and ethno-linguistic identity in Assam, and delicate navigation through the politics of cultural texts, the local protocols of knowledge accessibility, and the oscillation between pride and stigma associated with a non-official way of being Muslim. These issues are often invisible in the ‘final product’: they are not legible through the digitised images of the preserved texts, nor through the metadata that accompanies them. However, these practical and ethical issues, that require skills to understand the local politics and the power dynamics of cultural representation, form the fundamental backbone of a digital archive of endangered cultural texts. The Sylheti Nagri manuscripts belong to the Indian and Bangladesh cultural zone – extending to the bordering regions of Burma and Southern China. This material reminds us that the circulation of cultural texts does not coincide with the rigid borders of post-colonial nation-states. The flows of cultural texts, especially when linked to folklore and oral transmission, cannot be encapsulated in the nationalist regimes of cultural heritage. This problematic issue resonated particularly well with our own EAP project, since the endangered note-books and manuscripts of old Baul songs that we are aiming to preserve, are distributed in the porous cultural area of Bengal, which is shared between two nations: India and Bangladesh. These archives will hopefully lead international actors and funding entities in the field of cultural heritage to rethink of the unrealistically nation-centric ways in which we are expected to categorize, describe, and protect endangered collections.

Professor Chanda’s interlocutors had stories to tell about each of the text secretively preserved under the thatched roof of their homes. Copying the texts was perceived as a religious action of piety. There were emotions and sentiments related to the texts. These elements of the ethnographic life of a text and its cultural history often do not make it into ancillary metadata. Digital archives and their conventional norms are always the result of difficult selections, filters and omissions. They will not tell us how the Sylheti Nagri texts are chanted, or how they were allowed to be recited only in the night, before the morning call for prayers. Metadata can and should inform us about a cultural ‘item’ – its dimensions, conditions, and the details that we can access only by touching and smelling a text, rather than merely observing it – but it is only useful as long as it is short and concise, and therefore incapable of containing the emotional and performative life of a cultural text as ‘event’.

People sitting in a circle discussing issues

In a roundtable discussion, Professor Samantak Das, Professor Parthasarathi Bhaumik, and myself (Dr. Carola Erika Lorea) discussed archival ethics and the ethics of digital archives.  Who creates digital archives and for whom? Whose knowledge is included and represented? Whose knowledge is excluded? Is everybody equally able to access this mode of knowledge representation In this session we discussed the ethical implications, the power inequalities and the issues of ownership and accessibility involved in the creation of digital archives of vernacular culture in India, a country with 500 million internet users, but with only 3% households enabled to enjoy a computer connected to the internet, and with a massive digital divide in terms of gender and urban-rural gap (I discussed some of these issues in an earlier article for Cafe Dissensus).

Gentleman presenting the slide in the background is on the topic of sound archives

Professor Amlan Das Gupta (EAP132 and EAP274), Biswadeep Chakrabarty, and Pradip Deb conducted the sessions dedicated to the creation of sound archives, the history of sound recording, and the steps in the digitisation of music (SCTR hosts one of the largest digital archives of Indian classical music in the world ). Sound archives follow the conventions outlined in the handbook of the International Association of Sound and Video Archivists (IASA), but in practice, archiving is the art of making things work with the available means (an operation that has vernacular terms like jugaar in Hindi or ‘arrangiarsi’ in Italian) in face of the frequent occurrence of incompatibility and the fast obsolescence of carriers.

Analog mediums such as gramophone records, magnetic tape, wax cylinders, Teficords, and wire recorders are playing their swan song., While digital mediums for sound recording have progressed and changed incredibly fast in the past century; they are ‘philosophically different’ from born-digital material and present a particular set of challenges and problems in the field of preservation and digitisation. Digital storing mediums such as floppy discs, compact discs, mini discs, and  VCDs, are even more prone to vulnerability and instability, especially in relation to obsolescence. What clearly emerged in this session is that digital formats and materials are the most unstable, with an expected longevity of merely five years.

Diversify and update emerged as some fundamental keywords of a responsible project of music digitisation. Diversify storage formats and venues, creating as many copies as possible and storing them in different places, clouds, and hard drives. Updating and shifting the digital archive to newer platforms and formats can be an expensive and technically challenging process: a refreshment policy should be built in all archival projects if we want them to reach the next generations. Archives, as Prof. Amlan Das Gupta reminded us, are for the future; they are producing memories. They are not the heroic deed of an individual, but rather, the result of a collaborative project, involving the skills and labour of several people, institutions, collectors, researchers, and their expected audience of users.

Hands-on and gloves-on sessions: Handling fragile material and simulating remote capture

A long bench with people either side all wearing gloves and working on bound items

Close up of a woman handling a bound volume

Afternoon sessions and the whole fourth day of the training workshop have been  dedicated to practical sessions, aimed to build the required skills to handling fragile material and conduct an EAP project, from shooting high-quality images to creating metadata. What to digitise? How to digitise? The SCTR research fellows Amritesh Biswas, Purbasha Auddy and Moumita Haldar have generously shared their past experience with handling fragile collections and digitising endangered texts in order to prepare us for the upcoming fieldwork trips in rural West Bengal, where we will be digitising old note-books of Baul songs.

Example of a portable digitisation studio with tripod, laptop and lighting

The formation of a digital humanist engaged in preservation projects involves much more than technical skills. It requires a sort of character transformation, and the adoption of a certain set of values. Whereas the collector is moved by desire and personal taste, the archivist is supposed to be neutral: s/he protects the entire collection, without being moved by subjective preference. Even though we have post-editing technologies to make images and music sound ‘better’ or ‘clearer’, none of these modifications are part of an archivist’s work: collections are to be immortalized and faithfully represented for what they are. At the same time, the protocols of digital archives require us to always use the best available technology and the highest precision at our disposal, to record or capture our material. For images of manuscripts, we want to be able to zoom in and visualize every single detail: for scripts like Bengali, Farsi, and Arabic, for example, we should keep in mind that every single dot is important, for a minuscule dot can totally change the meaning of a word. This necessity dictates the rules of photography during remote capture: set your ISO at a maximum of 200, as this reduces noise; ensure that every part of the page including the edges are in focus, and avoid mixing lights to keep color and exposure consistent, more technical details are abundantly discussed in the EAP guidelines for Remote Capture.

Some of the mottoes of digitising projects in rural fieldwork sites, which might  seem obvious,, are often threatened by the temptation to opt for something more convenient in the immediate context of fieldwork. Schedule your digitisation following the norm the worst comes first: give priority to the most endangered and vulnerable items. Start by sorting out the objects: name them, clean them, create a specific folder and the required sub-folders for each. Segregate dangerous documents infested by pests. Think about the best available methods for preventive conservation (for example, wrap your items in acid-free paper or use silica gel bags for de-humidifying). Treat your equipment carefully during remote capture: for example, turn off the Live Mode in your camera utility software, unless you need to check your live image capture, or it will damage the longevity of your DSLR camera. Produce metadata as soon as you have the original item in hand, or you will miss a lot of precious information. Become familiar with your file management and naming practices (keep in mind that the last component of a file name is always numerical). Most importantly, demystify romantic notions about the creation of digital archives!

One of the best lines during the training workshop taught us that archive sounds cool, digitise sounds lovely, but actually it involves a lot of tedious issues and a lot of labour. As a matter of fact, we faced numerous compatibility issues during the post-process, which are a typical and unavoidable struggle. As soon as we brought our new Canon 6D to the School of Cultural Texts and Records to test it during the workshop, we realized that the laptops used at SCTR, which were perfectly fine for the previous EAP projects with their Canon 5D, were not equipped with the softwares or the versions needed to work with a Canon 6D. We needed to update a plethora of things - starting from the Canon EOS Utility -, figure out a different application to open and check the images, and reinstall a new version of Adobe Lightroom CC to process and export the images in TIFF. It is advisable to resolve these issues at the very beginning of the project, instead of finding oneself stuck with serious compatibility issues in a remote countryside!

Thanking once again the Endangered Archives Programme and the School for Cultural Texts and Records for this insightful experience, we encourage the readers to stay tuned for the upcoming posts on the next steps of our project EAP1247 on the Songs of the Old Madmen.  

Jay Guru!

Carola Lorea, National University of Singapore and Siddhartha Gomez (EAP1247)

 

 

 

 

 

 

03 December 2019

Locating and Sampling Arabic and Arabic-Malayalam Manuscripts in Kerala, South India

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This initiative to locate and survey endangered archives in Kerala was awarded as a pilot project grant by the Endangered Archive Programme in May 2019. Besides surveying and contacting public and private archive owners, we intend to sample approximately 200 pages of hand-written manuscripts and rare lithographs. Some of the manuscripts constitute the written, visual facet of a living tradition of performance for religious and devotional practices. We therefore intend to sample also video and audio records of performances according to the Malabar style. Many of the texts constitute, besides devotional poetry, a rich intellectual legacy of jurisprudence, historiography, and various sciences such as medicine and even architecture. Even at this initial stage all of us involved feel as if standing on the threshold of a hidden garden full of treasures. We have already found textual material of great significance for early modern Malabar history to take us beyond the colonial archives that have been, so far, the primarily source for Kerala and Malabar historiography. We expect to find material that will reorient Malabar Māppiḷa literature and culture in the broader framework of the Arabic Cosmopolis, a term coined by Ronit Ricci in her seminal work, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis in South and Southeast Asia (Ronit Ricci was grant holder for EAP609).

The history of Malabar and the Malayalam-speaking region is the history of contacts and networks across Asia from Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and East Africa to Southeast Asia. Pre-modern Malabar–the southwestern coastline of India including modern Kerala and Karnataka–was a central maritime junction between the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean for several centuries. Semitic and Indic religions interacted, enriching each other with various types of knowledge and cross-cultural exchanges resulting in the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity that is typical of the coastal communities across the Indian Ocean Rim. The contacts between Arabic and Malayalam are documented since the twelfth century in inscriptions and texts related to Indian Ocean trade. Some examples are Arabic inscriptions found on the West Coast of India commemorating the establishment of mosques by Muslim seafarers from as early as the twelfth century.

Our survey started in the area of Madayi, near Mount Hili (Ezhimala) that was the signifier of land for seafarers over history. Madayi is the site of a twelfth-century mosque, one of the earliest mosques in the region (the medieval structure was demolished in the 1940s giving way to a modern construction). We visited the home of Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi for surveying his impressive collection of manuscripts and rare lithographs in anticipation of a major digitization project in the future. We plan to return in late December for sampling digital copies of a small and beautifully written Burdah text, a hand-written Qur’an, and a majmūʿa manuscript that includes an extraordinary maulid composition named after Taj al-Dīn al-Hindī al-Malabārī, the famous Malayali king believed to have converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet. The story of the conversion is told in detail in the Arabic text called Qiṣṣat Shakarvatī Farmāz (1580 TAQ) and is retold in Malayalam in the Kēralōlpatti (ca. 1700, probably based on earlier oral traditions), in Portuguese in the Notisias dos Judeos de Cochim (1686), and in Syriac documents (1721 and 1871) translated by A. Mingana in 1926 (The Early Spread of Christianity in Kerala). Clearly, the archive faithfully kept by Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi in Mattool might produce textual material of significance for a wide variety of communities in Malabar and beyond.

Three people sitting in someone's home. They are looking at a manuscript and are in deep discussion.

Surveying manuscripts in Mattool; from left to right: Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi, Abdullah Anchillath, and Ophira Gamliel (photo by Dileepan Kunhimangalam)

So far, the brief survey at Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi’s archive focused on Arabic hand-written manuscripts and lithographs. Among the texts surveyed so far are fiqh (law), naḥw (grammar), qiṣṣa (story) and tārīkh (history), and qaṣīda (poetry or kavita). Some manuscripts are surprisingly broad in their regional and transregional affiliation, such as an “imitation” (takhmīs) poem composed by Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī (d. 1264) and “imitated” by Ṣadaqallāh al-Qāhirī of Kayalpaṭṭaṇam (Tamil Nadu) in 1885. There are also several majmūʿas (collections) with commentaries on Islamic literature and devotional poetry. As we were surveying the manuscripts, conversations ensued on interesting topics in relation to texts from the story of the late Sufi neighbor who mastered a jinn, to the history of the Araykkal rulers, to the medicinal expertise of Musa Musaliyār, the previous owner of one of the manuscripts, in curing mental illnesses.

Meanwhile, the news about the pilot project travelled far and wide and we were contacted by several local scholars interested in collaborating on surveying and locating more Arabic and Arabic Malayalam manuscript archives–private and public–around Calicut. By the time we complete the initial survey and the digitisation of a few selected texts, we hope to have more archive owners included in an area project, as well as team members, as clearly there is a lot of work on surveying, digitising, and installing preservation equipment in each archive. We thus started negotiating further surveys with C H Mappila Heritage Library in Calicut, with the team headed by Abdurahman Mangad, and with Dr Ajmal Mueen, whose family traces their lineage to the famous Makhdums of Ponnani.

Dr. Ajmal Mueen standing by some trees.

Dr. Ajmal Mueen (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Bookcase piled with manuscripts and books.

The manuscript collection at Dr Ajmal Mueen’s home in Mukkam, near Calicut (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Two men sit by a cupboard and drawers full of manuscripts. They are looking at one of them.

Abdullah Anchillath (right) and Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi (middle) examining a manuscript in November 2019 (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Currently our team consists of Mr Sayed Ali Ba-Alawi, Mr Abdullah Anchillath, Dr Dinesan Vadakkiniyil, Mr Dileepan Kunhimangalam, and Mr Yusuf Ali for the survey in Mattool and Madayi, and Prof Shamshad Hussain K. T. and Dr Saeko Yazaki in Kondotty and Parappanangady, where we plan to video record performance of Arabic Malayalam poems and recitations of Qur’an according to the Malabari style. Mr Shiju Alex will join us for the digitisation phase of the project during the third week of December in Kondotty. Shiju, an expert on digitisation of old and rare printed books in Malayalam (see here), will guide us in the delicate art of digitization. We plan to digitise 200 pages at least during those days for evaluating the volume of the work for a major (or area) project. Finally, there is also a “shadow” team member, Dr Ines Weinrich, who advises on the Arabic manuscripts and their significance from afar, in Germany, where she is currently working on a project on maulid literature over the ages and across regions, including Kerala.

A group of people, five women four of which are looking behind them. The one man is taking a photograph.

Prof Shamshad Hussain K. T. in Kondotty during the Nercha festival, in February 2010 (photo: Ophira Gamliel)

Written by Dr Ophira Gamliel grant holder for EAP1228

04 November 2019

Rare Buddhist Sanskrit Manuscripts from Rural Kathmandu and the Hill Areas of Nepal

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Among all the ancient languages, Sanskrit excels as being used in the greatest number of written works. Sanskrit is used for mainly Hindu and Buddhist manuscripts, covering medical manuals, literature and astrological works.

Two single manuscript pages placed one above the other. Each text has rows of Sanskrit.

Example of Buddhist religious stories

Nepal is the centre of Sanskrit Buddhist manuscripts, written in a variety of Newārī scripts on tree bark, palm-leaves and paper. The manuscripts are sources of profound knowledge. Nepalese Buddhist manuscripts are the only original extant sources of Mahāyāna Buddhism and has made the study of Mahāyāna Buddhism in Sanskrit possible. The texts are rare and often in a bad state due to natural and man-made conditions. The Endangered Archives Programme has supported the digitisation of these manuscripts through several projects:  EAP676, EAP790 and EAP1023. These grants have helped the exploration and digitisation of Buddhist manuscripts held in private collections and have been the first extended attempt to made public a significant number of these privately-owned manuscripts.  Sanskrit manuscripts in Nepal are treated as sacred items having great religious value. They are not merely material objects but regarded as emanations of deities in which life is inserted through performing a ritual called Nyāsa [placing or inserting] led by Vajrācaryā priests.

Two long manuscript pages. One placed above the other. Each page has two holes roughly splitting the text into three sections. These holes are used to tie the manuscripts together.

Early example of a manuscript written on paper

EAP1023 has digitised 478 Sanskrit manuscripts in twenty-eight collections. They were written between the tenth and eighteenth centuries. They are rare and still highly valued in Newār households in Nepal. All the manuscripts were recovered from Buddhist families and the owners are all very keen to preserve them.

The types of manuscripts in this collection include: Sūtra (canonical scripture), Tantra, Kathā (stories), Vidhī (rituals) and Buddhist chronicles. Those endangered ancient and medieval specimen discuss various religious themes as well as guide to perform rituals.  

The story literature in Buddhism is divided into Jātaka tales (the previous lives of the Buddha) and Avadāna (noble deeds). This collection contains several Avadāna stories including rituals texts. Some interesting manuscripts in this collection are copies of the Sūtra of Fivefold Protection (Pañcarakṣā Sūtra). The five Sūtras are Āryamahāpratisarā, Mahāsahasrapramardinī, Mahāmāyurī, Mahāmantrāṇusārinī and Mahasitavatī.

Pañcarakṣā and Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras were widely written and recited during the medieval times in Nepal. Pañcarakṣā Sūtra is believed to bring auspicious moments and bring protection from bad planets, evil souls, calamities, diseases, effects of poisons and so on. This text has five individual Sūtras. Five individual deities are emanated from the five Sūtras, each having special powers. Their influence is highlighted in the narrative descriptions of each Sūtra. Traditionally, the Pañcarakṣā Sūtra is written in golden, silver or organic homemade black ink. This collection also has the earliest dated Nepalese paper manuscript belonging to the twelfth century. From the Buddhist viewpoint, this collection is invaluable.

A single manuscript page. Gold writing with a colourful depiction of the Buddha in the centre.

Illustrated examples of  the Pañcarakṣā with writing in gold

A single manuscript page. Gold writing with a colourful depiction of the Buddha in the centre

Two pages of a manuscript a significant corner of each page is missing an burn marks are clearly visible.

A copy of the Pañcarakṣā Sutra, there looks as if there has been fire damage to the manuscript

Written by Dr. Shanker Thapa, Professor of History at Tribhuvan University and grant holder for EAP1023, EAP790 and EAP676.

19 June 2019

New collections online - June 2019

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Over the past few months we have made six new projects available to view online through our website. These new collections demonstrate the diverse variety of archives the EAP digitises, and includes eighteenth-century Brazilian royal orders, artwork and photography by Lalit Mohan Sen, colonial archives, Coptic manuscripts and prayer scrolls, war photography, and historic newspapers.

EAP627 - Digitising endangered seventeenth to nineteenth century secular and ecclesiastical sources in São João do Carirí e João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil

Open page of a fragile manuscript with parts of the page corroded awayEAP627/1/1/1 - Book 1: Baptisms, Marriages, and Deaths (1752-1808) / Livro 1 Batizados, casamengtos e óbitos anos de 1752 a 1808

The aim of EAP627 was to digitise the oldest historical documents in the state of Paraíba, Brazil (located in the semi-arid hinterlands and on the humid coastline). The project team successfully digitised 266 historical documents, ranging from 1660 to 1931 and their digitisation resulted in c. 83,000 TIFF images being created. It includes the entire collection of ecclesiastical documents at Paróquia de Nossa Senhora dos Milagres do São João do Cariri (comprised of 54 volumes produced between 1752 and 1931). During digitisation, the team uncovered the original, signed Constitution of Paraíba of 1891 – the first constitution of this state after Brazil was declared a republic in 1889. To the best of their knowledge and research, the project team believes this is the only existing copy of the document. The digital preservation of these documents have already contributed to shifting the historical narrative of the state’s back lands, and will ensure the ongoing possibility of study in the history of Paraíba’s Afro-Brazilian, indigenous, and mestiço populations.

EAP781 - Santipur and its neighbourhood: text and image production history from early modern Bengal through public and private collections

Drawing of a woman wearing a sariEAP781/1/7/1 - Photographs and artwork by Lalitmohan Sen

This was a continuation of EAP643, an earlier pilot project. The project team were able to digitise almost all the records discovered in the pilot. The collection includes 1265 manuscripts from Santipur Bangiya Puran Parishad, 78 bound volumes from Santipur Municipality, and 510 images of Lalit Mohan Sen’s artwork and photography.  Some of Sen’s work can be seen in this previous EAP blog post.

EAP820 - Documenting Slavery and Emancipation in Kita, Western Mali

Single page with the upper left corner torn and missingEAP820/1/1/3/1 - Compte-rendu d’une tournée de recensement dans le Birgo 1899 (Report of a census tour)

Kita is an important site in the history of rural slave emancipation in Western Mali (occurring at the turn of the twentieth century). It hosted the highest number of ‘Liberty villages’ (17 in total) following the French conquest (Western Mali was the first region of today’s Mali to be colonised by the French from the 1890s). Liberty villages hosted the slaves of the defeated enemies of the French army. The project team captured this specific history of slavery and emancipation in Kita through digitised reports, correspondence and court registers held in the Cercle archives of Kita. The collection is extensive, ancient and rare in its content, and is of great scholarly significance.

EAP823 - Digitisation and preservation of the manuscript collection at the Monastery of St Saviour in Old Jerusalem

Page of an illustrated manuscript with Arabic writingEAP823/1/2/25 - Risālat al-ḣajj min Al-Ḣasan al-Baṡrī - Trakt on the pilgrimage and its benefits by Ḣasan al-Baṡrī

Page of a manuscript written in GreekEAP823/1/3/1 - Šarakan

The objective of this project was to digitise and make widely available the manuscripts at the Franciscan monastery of St Saviour in the Old City of Jerusalem. The collection dates from the 12th to the 20th century, and is written in seventeen languages: Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Classical Ethiopic, Coptic (Bohairic & Sahidic), English, French, Old German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Samaritan, Spanish, Syriac and Turkish. The digitised material is remarkably diverse and is a valuable resource for scholars interested in Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions, as well as to linguists and philologists, art historians, and musicologists. The texts contain theological and philosophical treatises, biblical and liturgical books, dictionaries, profane and religious poetry, collections of sermons, pilgrim accounts, and also cooking recipes and magic prayers. Among the books are also rare items, for instance texts written in Armenian and Arabic scripts but in Turkish language, and the fragments of Byzantine manuscripts used for the flyleaves in bindings. A special group is made up by large size liturgical books with musical notations, produced for monastic choirs, as well as precious volumes lavishly decorated and illuminated with miniatures, initials and aniconic ornamentation. Research material of particular value consists of a variety of book covers (leather, textile, metal, decorative cardboards etc.) representing diverse binding methods.

Narrow Ethiopic manuscript with illustrationEAP823/1/1/11 - Prayer scroll

EAP894 - Endangered photographic collections about the participation of pre-industrial Bulgaria in three wars in the beginning of the 20th century

Photograph of womenEAP894/1/24 - Single and group photographs of Rada Bozhinova (Box 24)

Photograph of an interior, possibly a dining roomEAP894/1/15 - Scenes from urban and rural life (Box 15)

The EAP894 project team digitised two collections of photographs (and other records) from the pre-industrial development era of Bulgaria, covering the period 1880-1930. Colonel Petar Darvingov, the Chief of Staff of the Bulgarian Army and a commander of the occupation corps in Moravia (now the Czech Republic and Serbia) created the first collection. He captured moments of military action in the Balkans and Central Europe across three wars: the Balkan War, the Second Balkan War, and World War I. Within the collection are a large volume of photos from different fronts – positional photos of infantry and artillery units, fighting marches, frontline parades and prayers, aviation and motorized units, moments from tactical exercises, building of trenches, laying of roads and telephone wires, views of settlements, etc. Preserved are also the portraits, both group and individual, of the entire command staff of the Bulgarian army during the wars. The photographs record not only the military life at the front, but also at the rear – the camps and bivouacs, clothing, supplies, military equipment and everyday life of the Bulgarian soldier. Many of the backs of the photos have explanatory notes about specific events and characters. They include initiations, names and occasionally short biographical data on individual persons etc. The collection also includes military business cards with author´s notes, operational sketches of battlefields, sketches of the Bulgarian headquarters where the Serbian and Bulgarian troops were positioned during the Balkan Wars, stories of warfare during World War I, and sketches of military sites.

The second collection contains photos, cartoons and caricatures created by the renowned artist and photographer Aleksandar Bozhinov. He was one of the first significant cartoonists of the 20th century and a war correspondent. He documented military positions and the social life in the Balkan villages and towns in the time of war – daily life, work, calendar and festive rituals. The sketches and caricatures in the collection are both the originals and those published in albums and newspapers from the early 20th century. Copies of the Bulgarian comic newspaper (authored by Aleksandar Bozhinov) are also preserved in this collection.

EAP1086 - Preserving and digitising the historic newspaper, The Barbados Mercury Gazette

Front page of the Barbados Mercury dated Saturday, April 5, 1783EAP1086/1/1/1/1 - The Barbados Mercury. 5 April 1783

This project digitised the Barbados Mercury and Bridgetown Gazette, a newspaper printed in Barbados from 1783 to 1839. The Gazette was printed biweekly and each issue was four pages long. It is the most complete set of the Gazette and the only copies known to exist. The newspaper is crucial for understanding Barbados’ 18th and 19th century history, particularly because these were formative years for the island. The newspaper sheds light on the everyday life of a slaveholding society; Bussa’s 1816 rebellion; and the events that led to the abolition of the slavery on the island (1834). Digitisation of the newspaper offers the opportunity to unearth an untold history of the enslaved people of the island and their resistance in the early nineteenth century. EAP1086 was a collaborative effort between a team of practitioners and scholars, based both in Barbados and abroad. At the end of the project around 2,331 issues were digitised with around 9,000 digital images in total.

 

Written by Alyssa Ali, EAP Apprentice

17 June 2019

Marking Refugee Week with the EAP collections

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17 June is the start of Refugee Week, which takes place every year across the world. The U.K. has a programme of cultural and educational events to celebrate the contribution refugees have made.  This year’s theme  ‘You, me and those who came before' is ‘an invitation to explore the lives of refugees – and those who have welcomed them – throughout the generations’.

Looking through the Endangered Archives’ collection, I came across a file of photographs taken by Madanmani Dixit, the first photojournalist in Nepal.

The photographs were taken at a refugee camp in Bangai village in 1971, and depict refugees who have escaped the atrocities of  the Bangladesh Liberation War. It seemed appropriate at the start of this week to share some of these powerful images on the EAP blog.

Close up of a woman with the refugee camp in the background

 

Group of women and children sitting huddled together and looking at the camera

Photograph looking down at the camp, people standing in the shade of a wall with cows eating the straw on the ground

Extreme close up of a young woman with her head covered. She looks directly at the camera

To view more images from the file EAP166/1/1/30, please visit the EAP Website.

04 April 2019

The artwork of Lalit Mohan Sen

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Anigif

Lalit Mohan Sen (1898-1954) was an Indian artist born in West Bengal. Despite having a successful career working within the world of art and being a prolific artist in his own lifetime, relatively little is known about him today.

Sen graduated from the government School of Art in Lucknow in 1917, and then went on to study at London’s Royal College of Art in 1925. In 1931, he was one of ten artists hired to decorate the newly built India House in London. His artistic career included periods as an art teacher, commercial artist, landscape artist and photographer.

A dancing figure, white lines on a black groundEAP781/1/7/1/10. A dancing figurine

Sen’s work has been displayed in Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Royal Collections, his work has also been in exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the Exhibition of Photographic Art. In 2018, his art was chronicled in the exhibition “Unravelling a Modern Master: The Art of Lalit Mohan Sen (1898-1954), which took place at Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata.

Drawing of the face of a young woman in profile, with her head covered
EAP781/1/7/1/30. Portrait of a woman, Bhird Kheri, U.P

Picture of a kneeling man under the branches of a tree
EAP781/1/7/1/18. A seated man in a headress

Sen’s art spans a range of media, which include painting, sculpture, sketches, photography, textiles, printmaking, pen and ink, and posters encouraging tourism in India. His work encapsulates a variety of subjects, such as animals, deities, abstract design, portraiture, landscapes, nature and nudes. Much of his work has not only artistic value, but cultural, as they capture early twentieth century Indian dress, people and performance. Although his art focuses primarily on India, his body of work also shows interest in European landscapes and figures.

The back view of a woman carrying a pot on her hip
EAP781/1/7/1/12. Pot O Ghot

Photograph of a dancer sitting with her skirt fanned out on the floor
EAP781/1/7/1/235. Dance performance

From our project EAP781, Santipur and its neighbourhood: text and image production history from early modern Bengal through public and private collections”, our archives now contain over 500 digitised images of Sen’s art. These images demonstrate the diverse range of Sen’s artistic abilities.

Browsing through Sen’s body of work reveals the proficiency he had in creating art in different forms. It is fascinating to scroll through the collection of digitised images, and see how his artistic style remained distinct within each medium yet seemed to change quite considerably when working with another medium. In all, this collection of Sen’s work is a great source for research, inspiration and enjoyment.

Geometric pattern made of circles
EAP781/1/7/1/139. Block design of Saree

A brass sculpture of a stylised animal head with large open mouth
EAP781/1/7/1/153. Brass work in the shape of a face - used as an ashtray

Take a look here for the full set of images

More information on Lalit Mohan Sen and his work can be found in the video below

 

Written by Alyssa Ali, Endangered Archives Apprentice