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Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

20 November 2017

Il Kaulata Maltia – The only extant copy of the first journal in Maltese

Since September I have been working on the Maltese collection at the British Library, where I am tasked with cataloguing Maltese publications. The library boasts an impressive range of material ranging from 16th century publications by the Knights of Malta to books published in 2017. Amongst these there are some of the earliest references to the Maltese language as in Jean Quintin’s historical and geographical survey of the islands Insulæ Melitæ descriptio (1536, BL 795.g.6.(1.)), contemporary accounts of the Great Siege of Malta from 1565, some of the earliest works on the Maltese language by Agius De Soldanis from 1750, and a complete collection of Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s works from 1791.

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Map of the Maltese islands in Jean Quintin’s Insulæ Melitæ descriptio ex commentariis rerum quotidianarum (1536). (BL 795.g.6.(1.))
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The turning point in the history of Maltese publications was the liberalisation of the press in 1839, which formally came into force in March of that year following a wider drive for political autonomy in the British colony throughout that decade. The earliest wave of independent newspapers to be published in Malta came on the heels of this development. These newspapers were a largely multilingual affair, with the vast majority being in Italian or English, bilingual Italian and English (Il Mediterraneo, BL NEWS8160 NPL), and even trilingual in Italian, English and French (Il Corriere Maltese, BL NEWS8160 NPL). However, a number of short lived journals in Maltese started popping up at the same time, with one issue of the English-language publication The Harlequin published on the 6th of December, 1838, under the title L’Arlecchin, jeu Kaulata Inglisa u Maltìa, (Cassola, 2011,p. 22), being entirely in the vernacular. One month later, on the 15th of January, 1839, the first issue of the first Maltese journal Il Kaulata Maltia was published followed by two other issues. Only one copy of the first issue was thought to have survived in a private collection in Malta, and a reproduction of its frontispiece was first published by Ġużè Cassar Pullicino (1964). The second and third issues have thus far eluded researchers for decades until I recently discovered a copy of the full three-issue set in the British Library newspaper collection (view Kaulata pdf here).

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The frontispieces of issues 1 and 3 of Il Kaulata Maltia (1839) (BL NEWS8160 NPL)
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The editor of Il Kaulata Maltia was James Richardson[1], an Anglican missionary for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) who was also the editor of the aforementioned The Harlequin as well as The Phosphorous. The CMS was no stranger to publishing in Maltese in the years prior to the liberalisation of the press. In fact, the society’s own press, established by William Jowett in 1822, was one of the few allowed to operate before 1839 despite stringent press laws, and serviced other non-Catholic Christian denominations such as the Methodist Wesleyan Missionary Society. Its operations were nonetheless limited in the nature of the material which could be published, and were subject to the governor’s approval. The British government gave the green light to Anglican and other Protestant groups to operate and publish material in Malta yet pledged to protect the local Catholic population (Zammit, 2008, p. 258). This meant that no material of a religious nature intended for local circulation was allowed, and so output was limited to religious and educational material in Arabic, Turkish, Syriac, Italian and Greek and educational material in Maltese or about the Maltese language. Most notably, the CMS’s press was responsible for the publication of a number of works by Mikiel Anton Vassalli, known as “The father of the Maltese language”, including a revised edition of his Grammatica della Lingua Maltese (1827, BL 621.e.4), Motti, aforismi e proverbii Maltesi (1828, BL 14599.c.43), and Storja tas-Sultan Ciru (1831, BL 14599.b.58). All of these books fail to credit the CMS for their publication, instead using simply “Malta” or “Published by the author” despite their non-religious content, although this may have been done to avoid announcing Vassalli’s close ties with a Protestant group (Zammit, 2008, p. 259). In fact, Vassalli’s 1829 translation of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles (BL 14599.ee.17) was also published by the CMS, albeit in R. Watts’ press in London, thus circumventing the ban on religious material. Of particular note are the Wesleyan Missionary Society’s Ktyb -yl-Qari Ghat-tfal (1831, BL 14599.c.3) and Ktyb yl Qari fuq bosta h̡uejjeg mah̡tura myn kotba Kattolici (1832, BL 621.a.9), both written by Cleardo Naudi which despite their religious content, were allowed to be printed as they were intended for exclusive use in its Malta Charity School.

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Excerpt from Cleardo Naudi’s Ktyb -yl-Qari Ghat-tfal (1831), which uses Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s original orthography before the further Latinised variety used in Il Kaulata Maltia. BL 14599.c.3)
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The CMS’s focus on nurturing the Maltese language was a well calculated effort. In an article in the 1831 issue of CMS’s The Missionary Register, which compares the inhabitants of Malta and Syria, the linguistic situation is described thus (vol. 19, p.317):

The Maltese, in general, are not a reading people, and their language can scarcely be said to be a written language: it is only a few years since it was reduced to writing; and nearly all the books which have ever, to my knowledge, been published in it have been published within a very short time, and mostly by Mr. Jowett, or at his press […] and perhaps not twenty persons can be found, among the native population of the whole island, who are able to read them.

This may have been seen as a hindrance to the missionary efforts of the CMS which consequently undertook a role in education. It is in this context that Il Kaulata Maltia should be seen. Rather than a newspaper, it was meant to be a compilation of opinion pieces by its author George Percy Badger, together with poetry, idioms and aphorisms. The 13th December, 1838 issue of The Harlequin included an advert for it, saying (reproduced in Cassola, 2011, p. 30. My translation):

There is no need to spell out the usefulness and prestige of such a publication, these are obvious matters to everyone. Who is to say that this paper might not one day be the first to establish the Maltese language on a level and solid foundation, and produce a literature that could fill the Mediterranean with its praiseworthy and glorious revelations?

The second and third issues of the journal had scathing attacks on the Maltese educational system, in particular with regard to language instruction, perhaps acting as a precursor to Badger’s own publication Sullo stato della educazione pubblica in Malta (“On the state of public education in Malta”) later that year.

The second issue tackled suggestions brought forward by the Royal Commission of 1836, in which the two commissioners sent to Malta, John Austin and George Cornewall-Lewis, reviewed the educational system of the islands. In their report they had suggested that all elementary school children should first learn Maltese, followed by Italian, which they deemed to be the de facto language of the educated, through the medium of the former. Consequently, English should be taught on the basis of the country being a British colony, followed by Arabic. Badger criticised the idea of teaching students four languages and rubbished the need to learn Italian except for those businessmen who required it for their trade. He declared pro-Italianism as the domain of irredentists and Carbonari wanting to secede from the British Empire, and suggested that the Maltese people as a whole wanted to be British and should thus be taught English. His article highlights the vehemently pro-British nature of the publication.

The third issue picked up the issue of linguistic education by turning the spotlight onto the Maltese language. Here Badger criticised those who had wilfully neglected the language by discouraging its use. This was no doubt an attack on the Knights of Malta who had ruled the country until 1798, and was by extension a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic Church. Despite a seemingly anti-Catholic stance, the very same issue included a poem dedicated to St. Publius by the Catholic priest Dr. Ludovico Mifsud Tommasi, who, in spite of his religious differences, showed an overlap with the CMS’s support for the freedom of religion and press, and was also a pioneering translator of religious texts into Maltese.

Il Kaulata Maltia also sheds some light on another aspect of the Maltese language that was topical at the time of its publication: orthography. As written Maltese was still in its infancy there were different opinions on how it should be written, particularly in terms of the sounds that have no equivalent letters in the standard Latin alphabet, such as the għajn and the rgħajn, equivalent to the Arabic ع and غ respectively. Some writers preferred to use the Arabic letters mixed in with the Latin alphabet, while others like Vassalli added specially designed characters to it, as can be seen from the image reproduced above from the spelling book by Cleardo Naudi. More radically, others proposed the exclusive use of the Arabic consonantal script, an example of which can be seen below. 

Chtieb-ilkari Maltese_abjad

Left: An example of the Arabic ع , غ and ه mixed into the Latin alphabet from Francesco Vella’s Chtieb-ilkari yau dahla عal ilsien Malti (1824) (BL 14599.b.1)
Right: Excerpt of a dialogue in Maltese written in Arabic script from Rev. C. F. Schlienz’s Views on the improvement of the Maltese language and its use for the purposes of education and literature (1838) (BL 14599.c.4)
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The CMS, however, opted for a modified version of Vassalli’s Latin orthography which became the basis of its Maltese publications, including Il Kaulata Maltia. In fact, it seems that the journal was intended to introduce the orthographic system to the general population, as the second page of the first issue lists the whole alphabet with a guide to its pronunciation and an explanation. Different opinons gave rise to some animosity between their respective proponents, and in this description the author taunted Rev. Giuseppe Zammit, known as Brighella, by jokingly requesting that he bless his orthography. Brighella published a response in the journal Bertoldu in January, 1839 in answer to that taunt (Cassola, 1994, pp. 59-60), and a reply to that was in turn published in the third issue.


Further reading
Cassar-Pullicino, Joseph,  Kitba w Kittieba Maltin, it-tieni ktieb, l-ewwel taqsima. Malta: Università Rjali ta' Malta, 1964.
———, Il-kitba bil-Malti sa l-1870. Pieta: Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza, 2001.
Cassola, Arnold,“Two Notes: Brighella and Thezan”,  Journal of Maltese Studies (1994): 25-26, 58-62.
———, Lost Maltese newspapers of the 19th century. Malta: Tumas Fenech Foundation for Education in Journalism, 2011.
Zammit, William, Printing in Malta, 1642-1839: Its cultural role from inception to the granting of Freedom of the Press. Malta: Gutenberg Press, 2008.

I would like to thank Dr. William Zammit and Dr. Olvin Vella from the University of Malta for the help and information provided.

Karl Farrugia, Asian and African Collections
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[1] The final pages of each of the three issues, as well as The Phosphorus, say that they were published for the editor of The Harlequin. For this reason, I regard Richardson as the official editor and Badger as the author.

13 November 2017

Adat Aceh: royal Malay statecraft in the 17th century

When I am asked which is the most important Malay manuscript in the British Library, there is no simple answer. Should I cite the two copies we hold of the Sejarah Melayu, ‘Malay Annals’(Or 14734 and Or 16214), recounting the founding of the 15th-century kingdom of Melaka, and arguably the single most famous Malay text? Or the oldest known manuscript of the earliest historical chronicle in Malay, the Hikayat Raja Pasai, ‘Chronicle of the Kings of Pasai’ (Or 14350)? Or one of the finest illuminated Malay manuscripts known, a copy of the Taj al-Salatin, ‘The Crown of Kings’, written in Penang in 1824 (Or 13295)? Unmissable from this list of the great and the good of Malay writing is the Adat Aceh, ‘The Statecraft of Aceh’ (MSS Malay B.11), a compendium of court customs, regulations and practice from the greatest Muslim sultanate in Southeast Asia in the 17th century.

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Map of Aceh in the 17th century. Achem, from 'Livro do Estado da India Oriental', an account of Portuguese settlements in the East Indies, by Pedro Barreto de Resende, 1646. British Library, Sloane MS 197, ff. 391v-392r.  noc

The Adat Aceh was compiled against the backdrop of the struggle for the throne of Aceh from 1815 to 1819 between two rivals: the incumbent Sultan Jauhar al-Alam Syah, who had accrued many internal enemies; and the preferred choice of the nobles of Aceh, Sultan Syarif Saiful Alam, son of a wealthy merchant based in Penang, who was descended from a line of former Arab sultans of Aceh. Both sides had different British backers, and the East India Company authorities and mercantile community in Penang were closely involved in this affair. The final dates found in the Adat Aceh are the installation of Saiful Alam as Sultan on 12 Zulhijah 1230 (15 November 1815), and Jauhar al-Alam’s subsequent flight to Penang on 1 Muharam 1231 (3 December 1815). However, ultimately Jauhar al-Alam prevailed, and with the support of T.S. Raffles was restored to the throne of Aceh in 1819. [On this period in Aceh history, see Lee 1995.]

The manuscript of Adat Aceh in the British Library is written on English paper watermarked ‘W Balston 1815’, and was most likely copied shortly after that date. The dedication on the first page shows that the book was presented by W.E. Phillips ‘to his valued friend’ Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar (1776-1830). Phillips served in Penang from 1800 to 1824, latterly as Governor, while Farquhar was Lieutenant Govenor of the island from 1804 to 1805. 

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Adat Aceh, a list of rulers of Aceh. British Library, MSS Malay B.11, ff. 28v-29r   noc

The manuscript of Adat Aceh contains a number of different texts. The first two pages (ff. 2v-3r) contain a note on the duration of the world: Pasal pada menyatakan umur dunia tatkala turun Nabi Allah Adam sampai kepada hari kiamat iaitu tujuh ribu tahun lamanya, ‘Section on the age of the world, from the time of the prophet of God Adam to the day of judgement, being seven thousand years’. This is followed by the first major part, entitled in Arabic Mābain al-salāṭīn and in Malay Perintah segala raja-raja, ‘Regulations for kings’ (ff. 3v-26v), ascribed to Ismail bapa (father of) Ahmad. Containing advice for kings, the text is divided into 31 majlis or parts; the end of majlis 5 to the first part of majlis 24 was evidently missing in the older source from which the Adat Aceh was copied in 1815.

The second part of the Adat Aceh deals with the history of the sultanate. A listing of 37 rulers of Aceh is given on four pages (ff. 28r-29v), followed on ff. 31r-47v by a chronological account entitled Silsilah segala raja-raja yang jadi kerajaan dalam Aceh bandar Darussalam, comprising a summary of Acehnese dynastic history from the initial Islamization to the early 19th century, culminating in the crowning of Sultan Saiful Alam as mentioned above.

The third part of the manuscript (ff. 48r-102v) is the Adat majlis raja-raja, ‘Customs and regulations of the kings’, containing a detailed description of protocol for rulers and court officials, including regulations for ceremonies for the fasting month, for two main religious feasts, for making obeisance to the king, for the royal procession to the mosque on Fridays, for the royal bathing party on the final Wednesday of the month of Safar (mandi Safar), and for the night vigil of Lailatulkadar in Ramadan, and concludes with an enumeration of court dignitaries (ff. 103v-111r). The lengthy fourth and final part of the text (ff. 111r-176r) is a detailed account of regulations for the port of Aceh.

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Silsilah taraf berdiri segala hulubalang, section on the order of precedence for the line up of chiefs. British Library, MSS Malay B.11, f. 103v   noc

In acknowledgement of the exceptional historical significance of its contents, particularly the third and fourth parts, which appear to date mainly from the 17th century, the British Library copy of Adat Aceh, MSS Malay B.11, was one of the first Malay manuscripts to be published in facsimile in 1958. Perhaps reflecting the technical limitations of the period, but also the then prevailing lesser appreciation of the codicological value of paratexts, the facsimile included catchwords and some textual corrections, but not marginal annotations indicating new paragraphs (Drewes & Voorhoeve 1958: 8), which can only now be seen in the digitised version of the manuscript. As discussed in an earlier blog post on the Mir’āt al-ṭullāb by Abdul Rauf of Singkel, the Malay use of the Arabic words maṭlab (section, part) and baḥth (discussing, about) in the margins of books to highlight new topics appears to be unique to Aceh, and can involve considerable artistry in presentation. While these marginal signposts in the Adat Aceh lack decorative embellishments, they are elegantly presented calligraphically in red ink, slanted at an angle to the text. 

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Adat Aceh, section on the ceremonial procession for the feast of hari raya haji (Id al-Adha), with on the right, marginal annotation indicating the section on the 30 individually-named palace elephants, and on the left, a textual correction. British Library, MSS Malay B.11, ff. 73v-74r    noc

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Published facsimile of the same pages, with added page numbers, and without the marginal subject indicator on the right, but on the left with the textual correction graphically re-orientated to fit on the page (Drewes & Voorhoeve 1958: 74a-b)

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Three marginal topic indicators in the Adat Aceh manuscript (rotated for ease of reading), from left to right: baḥth tiga puluh gajah, ‘on the 30 elephants’ (f. 73v); simply maṭlab baḥth, 'section on', without indication of subject (f. 152v); maṭlab baḥth perintah segala hulubalang, ‘section on regulations for warriors’ (f. 17r). British Library, MSS Malay B.11  noc

On the basis of notes in another manuscript of the Adat Aceh in Leiden collected by Snouck Hurgronje (Cod.Or. 8213), Voorhoeve concluded that the Adat Aceh was probably compiled in late 1815 by one of the most senior court officials, Teuku Ne’ of Meurasa, from documents in the royal archives of Aceh. A copy (B) was brought to Penang in late 1815 or 1816, from which the present manuscript BL MSS Malay B.11 was copied. By the time of publication of the catalogue of Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain in 1977, Voorhoeve had found out that (B) was held in Edinburgh University Library as Or. MS 639, and that pp. 25 and 26 of that manuscript were lacking in BL MSS Malay B.11. The lacuna occurs on f. 14r of the BL manuscript and the missing two pages of text can now be supplied from the Edinburgh manuscript which appears to have been written by the same scribe. Download Transliteration of EUL Or MS 639 pp. 25-26

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Adat Aceh, showing the pages missing from the BL manuscript, from majlis (part) 4 of Perintah segala raja-raja, ‘Regulations for kings’, relating to communications with chiefs (hulubalang), harbourmasters (syahbandar) and merchants (saudagar). Edinburgh University Library, Or MS 639, pp. [25-26]. [With many thanks to Paul Fleming of Edinburgh University Library for providing this image.]

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The BL manuscript of Adat Aceh is a neat copy of the Edinburgh manuscript shown above, written by the same scribe, but he mistakenly left out two full pages at the point indicated by the red mark between the words hikmat and tabib. British Library, MSS Malay B.11, f. 14r   noc

The Adat Aceh is a treasure-trove of information on state, statecraft and trade in 17th-century Aceh, and its importance was recognized even very shortly after its compilation. Although our manuscript does not bear a title, the text was named Adat Achi by T.J. Newbold – one of the most perceptive early scholars of Malay writing – in an article published in 1836 in the Madras Journal of Literature and Science, and in 1838 Newbold presented his own manuscript of the work to the Madras Literary Society. English translations of parts of the Adat Aceh, perhaps based on MS (B), were published by Th. Braddell in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago in 1850-1851. The facsimile publication by Drewes and Voorhoeve in 1958 gave wider access to this work, and two romanised transliterations have been published in Indonesia (Lamnyong 1976 and Harun & Gani 1985). The Adat Aceh was the subject of an important Ph.D. by Takashi Ito (1984), and Ito (2015) has also recently published two volumes of the contemporary 17th century Dutch East India Company records on Aceh, affording an opportunity to compare Malay and Dutch sources on Aceh from the same period.

Further reading:

G. W. J. Drewes and P. Voorhoeve, Adat Atjeh. 's-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1958. [Contains a facsimile of BL MSS Malay B.11]
Ramli Harun & Tjut Rahma M.A. Gani, Adat Aceh. Jakarta: Departemen Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan, 1985.
Takeshi Ito, The world of the Adat Aceh.  A historical study of the Sultanate of Aceh. [Ph.D. thesis].  Canberra: A.N.U., 1984.
Takeshi Ito (ed.).  Aceh sultanate: state, society, religion and trade. The Dutch sources, 1636-1661.  Leiden: Brill, 2015. 2 v.
Teungku Anzib Lamnyong, Adat Aceh.  Aceh: Pusat Latihan Penelitian Ilmu-Ilmu Sosial, 1976.
Lee Kam Hing, The sultanate of Aceh: relations with the British 1760-1824.  Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995.
T.J. Newbold, Genealogy of the kings of the Mahomedan dynasty in Achin, from the 601st year of the Hejira to the present time. Extracted from a Malayan MS entitled 'Adat Achi', Usages of the Kingdom of Achin, together with a short notice of the MS itself.  Madras Journal of Literature and Science, 1836, 3-4:54-57, 117-120.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

23 October 2017

Mastering the art of a strong background: examples from Thai manuscripts

The importance of a strong yet subtle background cannot be underestimated in manuscript painting. Illustrations in manuscripts often accompany a particular text, or are used to highlight an important section of text. At the same time they function as decorative elements and sometimes their purpose is to increase the value of a manuscript. Manuscript painters had to master the fine balance between the subject or central motif, determined by the text, and decorative ornaments and backgrounds in a painting. The background is an important part of the composition and has a significant impact on the finished artwork: if it is too strong or blatant it dominates the rest of the painting, but a weak or neglected background leaves a large area of the painting unappealing.

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Scenes from the legend of Phra Malai while meeting the god Indra in one of the Buddhist heavens (left) and the future Buddha, Metteyya, shown with attendants (right). Central Thai folding book dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630 f.43 Noc

In Thai manuscript art special attention was usually paid to the design of backgrounds in paintings depicting heavenly scenes and celestial figures, whereas the backgrounds of worldly scenes were often shown in a realistic way with plants, rocks, ponds, mountains, buildings, etc. The marvellous scenes shown above are from the legend of the Buddhist monk Phra Malai, here shown during his visit to Tavatimsa heaven. The lavishly gilded red background in a flame-like pattern known in Thai as lai kranok complements the main figures and the structure of the heavenly stupa Chulamani Chedi perfectly. Red was a preferred background colour even before the 19th century, but at that time decorative elements of different sizes and shapes were strewn in randomly to fill in empty space, as shown below in the example from the 18th century.

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A scene from the Nimi Jataka showing Prince Nimi’s journey to the Tavatimsa heaven, passing through the Buddhist hells. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f. 4 Noc

The 19th century was a period of experiment and innovation in Thai manuscript painting. Not only were new and brighter tones for background designs introduced, but also strong and well-structured patterns like the lai kranok. Minerals to produce blue tones were expensive and rarely used in manuscript illustrations before 1800, but during the 19th century blue paints were imported from Europe and sometimes were used very lavishly to questionable artistic effect.

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The gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) with attendants in their heavenly environment. From a central Thai folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630 f. 1  Noc

In the image above the strong blue background used for the central part of Buddhist text passages in Pali language, written in gold ink, is almost overwhelming. It is unlikely that the excessive use of blue was the painter’s decision, but rather the request of the person(s) who commissioned the manuscript. Bright blue tones became very fashionable during the 19th century and together with the gold ink they made the manuscript appear more valuable. In the illustrations of the gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) together with other celestial beings, however, the painter decided to use blue tones very sparingly in the lai kranok pattern which has a bright red as its basic tone, very much in the pre-1800 tradition.

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The gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) in their heavenly environment. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257 f. 2 Noc

The usual way to record text in illustrated Thai folding books was to write it in black ink on the naturally cream-coloured paper as shown above. Sometimes, the paper was blackened and the text recorded in yellow ink or white steatite pencil. The image above shows illustrations of the gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right), both before a background dominated by red. The lai kranok pattern makes use of white, blue, green and pink tones. The figures are kneeling on a blue ground that is decorated with gold floral patterns.

Besides the lai kranok pattern, floral background designs enjoyed great popularity throughout the 19th century. The use of floral patterns for backgrounds was a further development of the already well-established application of flowers and foliage as decorative elements in manuscript illustrations of worldly scenes before the 19th century, though not in strictly structured, pattern-like designs.

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Illustrations of four Buddhist monks at a funeral. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257, f. 4 Noc

Flowers are not only aesthetically-enhancing elements in Thai manuscript painting. They can also symbolise a peaceful and enjoyable environment as well as positive thoughts and beautiful minds. This can be assumed in the case of the illustrations above, showing four Buddhist monks seated in meditation or while chanting Pali texts at a funeral. Although the floral pattern of white-and-pink blossoms with foliage in green tones on a dark brown foundation is very strong and distinctive, it does not overpower the four figures in the foreground. The monks’ appearance is presented in very bright colours, dominated by an almost white cream tone and an intense orange so that they stand out before the darker background.

The following three manuscript illustrations feature similar floral background patterns which aim to enhance the appearance of the god Brahma, a red Hanuman figure and a hermit.

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The god Brahma seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with red foliage before a black background with a light blue and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 4 Noc

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The red coloured Hanuman seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with white foliage before a black background with a white, pink and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 8 Noc

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A hermit seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with blue foliage before a black background with a white, pink and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 10 Noc

Simpler floral background patterns that were frequently used consisted of triple blossoms, single or multi-coloured, combined with a green leaf as shown in the image below. An even more simplified floral pattern consisted of a combination of dots arranged in such a way that they resembled multiple blossoms on trees. Such simpler floral patterns were also used to decorate curtains or carpets which sometimes appear in manuscript paintings.

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A half-human half-bird kinnara seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with green foliage before a black background with a simple multi-coloured floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 9 Noc

Another frequent background pattern in Thai manuscript painting is the cloud pattern. Consisting of distinctively shaped white or light blue clouds on a bright blue foundation, this pattern usually accompanies celestial beings to show their heavenly environment. The cloud pattern often resembles clouds that were used in East Asian manuscript decoration (compare, for example, the Vietnamese Truyện Kiều) and may have been adopted from East Asian traditions.

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Celestial banner bearers (left) and the future Buddha Metteyya with attendants (right) before a light blue background with a cloud pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 57 Noc

The manuscript paintings shown above are fine examples where larger and smaller clouds were combined to form a light-blue and white background pattern that contrasts and enhances the presentation in yellow, orange and red tones of celestial beings (devata) and Metteyya, the Buddha-to-be, in their heavenly environment.

A clear example of neglect in the background design can be seen in the illustrations below. Although the artist put considerable effort into the execution of the celestial beings, paying much attention to details of their clothes and jewellery which are presented in gold, yellow and orange tones, the background design is really bland with broad white brushstrokes thrown wildly on a blue foundation.

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Male and female heavenly beings, devata, before a poorly executed background with clouds. From a central Thai folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15371, f. 25   Noc

It is difficult to explain such carelessness in the presentation of the background. The painter may have been under time pressure to finish illustrating the manuscript; or maybe he wanted to experiment with foreign water-colour painting techniques which he had not mastered yet. It may also be the work of two painters, one of whom was not very skilled or an apprentice. Another possibility is that the manuscript was produced at one of the many commercial workshops that had sprung up in Bangkok during the second half of the 19th century where numerous low-quality manuscripts and affordable copies of older, more valuable manuscripts were produced by less skilled artists.

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