Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

02 April 2020

EAP and the Covid-19 crisis

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The uncertainties around the coronavirus emergency have meant that we have taken the difficult decision not to award any new projects in the current round. We expect to be making further announcements in the coming months about what a future funding round will look like, and we are ensuring the projects that are still in progress are supported wherever possible.

Meanwhile, our rich and diverse collections are still online for all to explore for research, entertainment and enjoyment. We have over 7 million images and 25,000 sound files, and furthermore we are still able to put new projects online. We will be showcasing these in the coming weeks and months, so stay tuned!

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.