THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

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

24 May 2017

33 Burmese manuscripts now digitised

The Burmese manuscript collection in the British Library consists of approximately 1800 manuscripts. The majority are written on palm leaf, but there are also many paper folding books (parabaik), and texts written on diverse materials such as gold, silver, copper and ivory sheets in the shape of palm leaves. The collection is particularly strong in historical, legal and grammatical texts, and in illustrated material. In particular, there are many folding books with illustrations of the Life of the Buddha, Jataka stories, court scenes and other subjects.

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Royal entertainments: In the above scene, a musical troupe is entertaining the royals. To the left, the royal party is seated under a canopy watching a Burmese classical dance (Zat pwe), while to the right are dancers and musicians accompanied by an orchestra (Saing waing). Zat taw gyi or zat pwe is usually based on Jataka stories, which are the most popular literary sources throughout all periods of Burmese history. British Library, Or.16761, f.28r Noc

The manuscripts derive from two historic sources, the British Museum and the India Office Library, and were mostly brought from Burma by travellers, envoys, missionaries, administrators and researchers. From the British Museum came the John Murray collection, acquired in 1842, which includes several manuscripts from Arakan dating from the 1740s, and the Sir Arthur Phayre collection, acquired in 1886. The India Office Library collection of Burmese manuscripts began with the Royal Mandalay Collection acquired in 1886 after the Anglo-Burmese war, and a collection of official documents formed by Henry Burney which was probably presented to the Library by Burney himself. Catalogues of all the Burmese manuscripts are available in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and about 700 manuscripts in Burmese and and in Pali in Burmese script can be found in the online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

Since 2013 the British Library has digitised some of the finest Burmese manuscripts in its collection, supported by the Henry D. Ginsburg Legacy. To date 33 manuscripts have been fully digitised, covering a wide range of genres and subjects.  All these manuscripts are now accessible through the Digitised Manuscripts website. A new webpage, Digital Access to Burmese Manuscripts, also lists all the Burmese manuscripts digitised so far, with hyperlinks to the images and to blog posts featuring the manuscripts. Future digitised manuscripts will be also be listed on this page. Shown in this post are a selection of our digitised Burmese manuscripts; clicking on the hyperlinked shelfmarks below the images will take you directly to the digitised versions.

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The royal melodrama Vijayakari zat: In the eighteenth century Burmese drama flourished at the royal court, and the earliest play, Maniket Pyazat, was written in 1733 by the court poet Padesaraja (1684-1752), based on his own poem Maniket Pyo. Burmese court drama really began to develop at the beginning of the reign of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). Court dramatists, such as U Ponnya (1807-1866) and U Kyin U (1819-1853), produced dramatic works during the reign of Bagyidaw. Hlaing Hteik Khaung Tin, the Crown Princess (1833-1875) in the reign of King Mindon, wrote court dramas such as Vijayakari and Indavamsa, but she earned particular fame for her romantic dramas. In the scene shown above, there is a tree in a magical forest where lovely maidens grow and wait to be plucked. This drama is about Prince Vijayakari, Sakanitum (a princess born from a flower bud), and Adideva of the Ogre Kingdom. These court dramatists wrote delightful romances which are marvels of literary art. Only a few of their works survive to the present day but these are still widely read and studied. British Library, Or.3676, f.13r Noc

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Regatta festival: There are many Burmese festivals throughout the year. Tawthalin (September) is the sixth month in the Burmese calendar and the third month of the rainy season in Burma. The rain becomes less frequent, there is sunshine with clear skies, no wind, and the surfaces of the rivers are smooth without waves. The season is just right for holding regatta festivals, which have traditionally been held in this month since the times of ancient Burmese kings, and the regatta festival remains one of the twelve monthly festivals in the Burmese calendar. Regattas were not only occasions for pageantry but also opportunities for demonstrating the naval prowess of the armed forces. In the olden days, the royal family sent their own boats to participate in the race, and high officials were placed in charge of preparations for boat races held along the shores of rivers throughout the country. British Library, Or.15021, f.16r Noc

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Scenes from the Ramayana: Ravana, in disguise as a hermit, begs Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refuses, Ravana summons his magic chariot and sweeps Sita up and away, into the sky and over the forests (top). When Rama and Lakshmana finally find their way home Sita is gone (bottom). British Library, Or. 14178, f. 10 Noc

Quick link to: Digital access to Burmese manuscripts

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

19 May 2017

The Jaipur Literary Festival comes to the British Library

If anyone is wondering why tents are going up all over the Piazza, it’s all in preparation for the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival which returns to London this weekend at the British Library presenting a sumptuous showcase of South Asia’s literary heritage, oral and performing arts with 31 scheduled events.

Download a full programme

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In January earlier this year the Library exhibited a facsimile of one of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215, now held at the British Library in London, at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur (Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival). Hosting the London Festival is a wonderful way of participating in the South Asia Year of Culture besides having an opportunity to showcase our own rich collections from South Asia. These include paintings, miniatures, drawings, over 80,000 manuscripts covering history and poetry to medicine and religion, the writings and papers of diplomats and travellers and administrators, outstanding photography, some 600,000 printed books and periodicals, countless recordings and much more besides.

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Leaves from the Dara Shikoh Album
Right: Dara Shikoh with a tutor, attributed to Chitarman, c. 1630 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.33v)
Left: Lady with a narcissus, perhaps Mumtaz Mahal, attributed to Bishndas, 1631-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.34r)
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An opportunity to find out about our collections takes place at 12.45 in the Piazza in Ten South Asian Treasures of the British Library.  Our curators will highlight

  • Zoroastrian Treasures in the British Library
  • Abu'l-Fazl's  Akbarnamah
  • Two centuries of Indian Print
  • The Lucknow Album
  • The Dara Shikoh Album
  • The Gentil Atlas
  • India Office Records
  • The Dakani manuscript Pem Nem

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The ghats at Haridwar. Watercolour by Sitaram, 1814-15 (British Library, Add.Or.4783)
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Other sessions with BL Asian and African curators are:

Illustrious Journeys: The Forgotten Art of Sitaram
JP Losty introduced by Malini Roy
Sita Ram was the artist of ten magnificent albums of drawings of views on the Ganges and Yamuna from Bengal to Delhi and beyond. Two volumes were sold in London in 1974 and subsequently dispersed but it was not until the British Library acquired the remaining eight volumes in 1995 that Sita Ram's true status and patronage were revealed. J.P. Losty takes us on an imaginative journey following the Governor-General Lord Hastings' travels of 1814-15 with Sita Ram’s meticulous, detailed and inspired watercolours.

The Rise and Fall of Mughal Art
JP Losty, Katherine Butler Schofield, Susan Stronge and Malini Roy in conversation with William Dalrymple (Presented by Aga Khan Foundation)
No Indian dynasty made more of their love for art, and especially painting, than the Mughals. Five authorities on Mughal painting tell the remarkable story of how a Muslim dynasty came to patronise some of the greatest figurative paintings in world history, from the beginnings of the atelier during the reign of Akbar through to its heyday during the reign of Shah Jahan and its decline under Aurangzeb.

Knowledge Networks from the Medieval to the Contemporary World
Arthur Dudney, Gagan Sood, James Caron, Layli Uddin and Paniz Musawi Natanzi in conversation with Nur Sobers-Khan
The circulation of ideas in the early modern world demonstrates the complexity of knowledge flows and networks, of translation, retranslation, reinterpretation and innovation. The movements of information and thought from East to West and back provide fascinating insights into the nature of scholarship and the movement of ideas.

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Prince Gauhar and Khiradmand rescued by the simurgh. By Govardhan II, 1734-9 (British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.51r)  noc

In addition to the literary events there will be musical performances in the piazza and the entrance hall:

  • Morning Music (Saturday): Bhakti: Invoking the Muse  with Arundhathi Subramaniam & Vidya Shah
  • Evening Music (Saturday): Kabir Cafe with Neeraj Arya
  • Morning Music (Sunday) with Amrit Kaur Lohia

If you can make it,  don't forget to visit the BL Treasures Gallery which will be open exhibiting the Dara Shikoh album, Mughal manscripts and Hindu and Buddhist treasures.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
Twitter Links: @BLAsia_Africa#ZEEJLFatBL

17 May 2017

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia

Elephants have played an important part in many Asian civilisations since ancient times, for once they could be brought under control, their gigantic physical appearance and wild temperament were regarded as great assets. In China, war elephants appeared from at least as early as the Shang Dynasty (1723-1123 BC) (Kistler 2006: 8). They were respected both for their awe-inspiring size and for their difficult behaviour, which in turn helped to secure the position at the top of those kings who succeeded in controlling the beasts (Trautmann 2015: 68-69). In India, from as early as 1000 BC in the later Vedic period, elephants were domesticated and became a very valuable resource for kings and rulers in the northern states, especially for use in battle, and information on domesticating elephants was recorded in Gajasastra or elephant knowledge manuals. In Hinduism the pachyderms are regarded as sacred animals since the god Indra chose a celestial elephant named Airavana as his animal mount, or vahana (Trautmann 2015: 100).

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Airavana, the god Indra’s elephant, depicted in a Thai manuscript. British Library, Or.  13652, f. 4v Noc

The Indian epic Ramayana also portrays elephants as an important part of kingship. It mentions the relationship between kings and elephants, and the duty of the royals to attend to the needs of the elephants (Trautmann 2015: 50-51). Ayodhaya, the royal city of Rama, was full of horses and elephants, and according to early Buddhist texts, King Bimbisara of Magadha (558-491 BC) possessed a well-trained elephant corps (Kistler 2006: 21) .

The idea of the royal use of elephants, war elephants and elephant training techniques gradually spread from India to the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, as early as AD 40, the two Trưng sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, led a victorious but short-lived rebellion against the Chinese Han ruler before they were suppressed in AD 42. The two Trưng sisters, who were killed in the war, have been depicted in Vietnamese history as warriors riding on elephants to fight against the Chinese Han.  Since then they have become national heroines and a symbol of resistance against foreign rule and domination.

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The Trưng Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng) depicted on the front cover of Làng Văn, no. 19, March, 1986. British Library, 16641.e.13

Elephants played an essential role in traditional warfare in Southeast Asia. Not only were they the main war machines but they could also instigate war, especially if they were “white elephants”. In many traditional kingdoms in Southeast Asia, “white elephants” received royal treatment and carried the king. In reality “white elephants” are simply albino elephants, but they are extremely rare. Some white elephants which simply had pale colorations or certain spots and other characteristics were deemed to be “auspicious” and beautiful, and were believed to be especially blessed by the gods. This belief may also be related to the Hindu myth which describes Airavana, Indra’s mount, as a white elephant. Rulers sometimes competed for ownership of such white elephants, and these ownership contests could be used as pretexts for declaring war (Kistler 2006: 178-9).

Just as the Vietnamese honour the Trưng sisters, so the Thais regard highly Queen Suriyothai and her daughter, Princess Boromdilok, for their bravery and sacrifice. According to Thai chronicles, Queen Suriyothai gave up her life to protect her husband King Maha Chakkraphat, who was engaged in an elephant fight with the Burmese Viceroy of Prome during the rise of the Tongoo dynasty of Burma in 1548. She dressed as a male soldier on a war elephant and decided to block the Viceroy of Prome from charging her husband, but was killed by a single blow from the Viceroy’s spear, together with her daughter. Between 1563 and 1564 the Burmese kingdom of the Toungoo Dynasty and the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya were engaged in another war, this time over white elephants. King Bayinnaung of the Toungoo demanded that King Maha Chakkraphat of Ayutthaya send two of his white elephants to Burma as tribute, but Maha Chakkraphat refused, and hence war broke out. Ayutthaya could not withstand the power of the Burmese army, and eventually a peace deal was agreed in which one of the Siamese king’s princes was taken hostage to Burma, and Ayutthaya also had to give four white elephants to the Burmese king. In addition, Siam had to send thirty elephants and a substantial amount of silver to Burma annually. Ayutthaya was also reduced in status to a vassal state to the Burmese kingdom.

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Elephant catching in Burma. British Library, Or. 16761, f.10r Noc

According to Thai historical sources, Siamese pride was only restored by King Naresuan, the grandson of King Maha Chakkraphat, when he won an elephant duel between himself and Mingyi Swa, Bayinnaung’s grandson, in 1593. In foreign source material the actual elephant duel was not mentioned but there was definitely an elephant battle between Naresuan and the Burmese troops. Similar conflicts over white elephants took place in other traditional Southeast Asian kingdoms. For example, around the 1470s, Emperor Lê Thánh Tông of the Đại Việt kingdom waged a war against the Lan Xang kingdom (literarily translated as 'kingdom of a million elephants', located in modern Laos) after his request for a gift of a hair of the white elephant of King Chakkaphat of Lan Xang was rejected.

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King Naresuan on his elephant battles with the Burmese.  King Naresuan the Great (Bangkok : Animate, 1994). British Library, YP.2007.a.2584,  p.[170]

Elephants have no place in modern world warfare; nevertheless Southeast Asians still have a strong sense of their power and role in society. In Thailand an annual elephant round up is organised in Surin province in north-eastern Thailand. This festival was an important royal event during the Ayutthaya period, when wild elephants were hunted, tamed and trained to be used as working or war animals. In Thanh Hóa province in northern Vietnam, an elephant battle festival or Trò Chiềng has been revived recently. This festival commemorates and honours General Trịnh Quốc Bảo, who adopted war tactics in his fight against the enemy in the 11th century.  He had elephants made out of bamboo, glued fireworks to them, and then burnt them in the battle against the enemy’s elephant troops. This spectacular and original strategy may well have contributed to his victory.

Further reading:
John M. Kistler. War elephants. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2006.
Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and kings: an environmental history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
‘Tro Chieng: the Most Anticipated Festival in Thanh Hoa’, Vietnam Pictorial, No. 699, March, 2017, pp. 30-33 (British Library shelf mark : SU216 (2) )

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork