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

18 July 2016

The Wise Collection: Acquiring Knowledge on Tibet in the late 1850s

The drawings in the British Library’s Wise Collection probably form the most comprehensive set of large-scale visual representations of mid-nineteenth century Tibet and the Western Himalayan kingdoms of Ladakh and Zangskar. These drawings were made in the late 1850s – at a time when the mapping of British India was largely complete, but before or around the time when Tibet began to be mapped for the first time by Indian Pundits.

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This map shows the border area between Tibet and today’s Arunachal Pradesh in Northeastern India and Bhutan. The right part of the map is oriented to the south (BL Add.Or.3017, f. 6)
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The acquisition of systematic knowledge of Tibetan landscapes and societies became an ambitious goal for the British Empire in the 19th century. Such knowledge was often dependent on the aid of local informants. As a result the region was occasionally culturally represented and visualized by local people – such as in case of the Wise Collection.

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This map shows the area around Mt. Kailash in Western Tibet. Several lakes are depicted as well as market places and trading centres. The mountains with the white peaks on the upper part of the map represent the Himalaya - the map is oriented to the south (BL Add.Or.3015, f. 4)
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Untitled
Detail from the map above, showing Mt. Kailash and surroundings in great detail with the circumambulation path, monasteries, a lake, streams and a tall prayer flag pole

The story of the collection’s origin is a puzzle that has only become accessible piece by piece. The collection was named after Thomas Alexander Wise (1802-1889), a Scottish polymath and collector who served in the Indian Medical Service in Bengal in the first half of the 19th century. According to a typewritten note dating from the 1960s, the ‘drawings appear to be by a Tibetan artist, probably a lama, who had contact with Europeans and had developed a semi-European style of drawing.’I have recently uncovered one of the most important parts of the whole ‘Wise puzzle’ – the name of the Scotsman who commissioned the drawings. It was William Edmund Hay (1805-1879), former assistant commissioner of Kulu in today’s Northwest India. Charles Horne writes (Horne 1873: 28)

In the year 1857 one of the travelling Llamas [lamas] from Llassa [Lhasa] came to Lahoul, in the Kûlû country on the Himalêh [Himalaya], and hearing of the mutiny [this refers to the Indian rebellion in 1857] was afraid to proceed. Major Hay, who was at that place in political employ, engaged this man to draw and describe for him many very interesting ceremonies in use in Llassa, […].

William Howard Russell – former special correspondent of The Times – visited Simla in July 1858 and mentions in his diary that ‘Major Hay, formerly resident at Kulu, is here on his way home, with a very curious and valuable collection of Thibetan drawings’ (Russell 1860: 136). These statements most probably refer to the drawings that now form the British Library’s Wise Collection. At the current state of research no definitive statement can be made about the circumstances in which Wise acquired the drawings; most probably Hay sold them to him. The name of the lama who made the drawings also remains unknown, but I have started following the traces he left and hope to identify him one day.

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Map showing a part of the Indus Valley in Ladakh (BL Add.Or.3014, f. 4)
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Indus
Detail from the map above with explanatory notes:

36: Remains of a very old fort. There were said to have been 3 sisters; one built a fort, a second erected 108 chortens [stupas], and the third planted the place with trees: there is this place. 37: A hot spring only visible in winter, as in summer when the river has swollen it over flows it.

The collection comprises six large picture maps – drawn on 27 sheets in total – which add up to a panorama of the 1,800 km between Ladakh and Central Tibet. They are accompanied by 28 related drawings illustrating monastic rituals, ceremonies, etc. referring to places shown on the maps. Placed side by side, the maps present a continuous panorama measuring more than fifteen metres long. Places on the maps are consecutively numbered from Lhasa westwards. Taken together there are more than 900 numbered annotations on the drawings. Explanatory notes referring to the numbers on the drawings were written on separate sheets of paper. Full keys exist only for some maps and for most of the accompanying drawings; other drawings are mainly labelled by captions in Tibetan, while on others English captions dominate. Some drawings lack both captions and explanatory texts. Watermarks on the paper together with internal evidence from the explanatory notes and from the drawings themselves support the fact that the drawings were created in the late 1850s.

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The left side of this map shows an illustration of Gyantse in Southern Tibet. On the right side the Yamdroktso Lake and the confluence of Yarlung Tsangpo River and Kyichu River as well as the Chaksam ferry station are depicted. This map is oriented to the north. (BL Add.Or.3016, f. 3)
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Detail from the map above, showing amongst others the Yamdroktso Lake, the Yarlung Tsangpo River, several monasteries and mountain passes. The Chaksam ferry is depicted in great detail – showing the iron chain bridge, a horse head ferry and a hide boat

Compared to maps created by Westerners the picture maps in the Wise Collection are not primarily concerned with topographical accuracy, but provide a much wider range of visual information. They transmit valuable ideas about the artist’s perception and representation of the territory they illustrate. The panorama shown on the maps represents the area along the travel routes that were used by several groups of people in mid-19th century Tibet – such as traders, pilgrims and officials. The maps present information about topographical characteristics such as mountains, rivers, lakes, flora, fauna and settlements. Furthermore a large amount of detailed information on infrastructure such as bridges, ferries, travel routes, roads and mountain passes is depicted. Illustrations of monasteries, forts and military garrisons – the three main seats of power in mid-19th century Tibet – are highlighted. Thus the drawings supply information not only about strategic details but also about spheres of influence. The question of what purpose the maps served remains a matter for speculation at present. William Edmund Hay was experienced in surveying and mapmaking – he travelled not only in the areas around Kulu, but also in Ladakh and in the Tibetan borderlands. He was also a collector with varied cultural interests. He never had the chance to travel to Central Tibet himself, but his interest in acquiring knowledge about Tibet were characterised by an encyclopaedic approach: he wanted to gather as wide a range of information on the area as possible.

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This drawing shows different people and a selection of different types of tents – supplemented by English and Tibetan captions (BL Add.Or.3033)
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Illustration of a part of a wedding ceremony: the bride is picked up at her house. The whole ceremony is shown on several plates (BL Add.Or.3037)
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What makes the Wise Collection so fascinating is the fact that it can be studied from different disciplines. On the one hand the picture maps can be assigned to Tibetan cartography and topography; on the other they represent an illustrated ‘ethnographic atlas’. Supplemented by the accompanying drawings and explanatory notes, the Wise Collection represents a ‘compendium of knowledge’ on Tibet.

When I started doing research on the Wise Collection I thought I knew where I was going. But the longer I studied the material and the deeper understanding I gained of the collection as a whole, the more new questions emerged. I realized that the drawings require a wider frame of analysis in their understanding. Thus I focused not just on the stories in the drawings but also on the story of the drawings. The expected results of my research will expand our knowledge about the connection between the production of knowledge and cultural interactions. As the result of a collaborative project of at least two people with different cultural backgrounds, the Wise Collection reflects a complex interpretation of Tibet commissioned by a Scotsman and created by a Buddhist monk. The result of their collaboration represents a ‘visible history’ of the exploration of Tibet. The entire Wise Collection and my research results will be published in my forthcoming large-format monograph.

The whole collection was restored and digitised in 2009 and is available on British Library Images Online (search by shelfmark). The drawings are catalogued as the ‘Wise Albums’ under the shelfmark Add.Or.3013-43. Originally all the drawings were bound in three large red half-leather albums. The related drawings and the relevant explanatory notes are still bound in these albums. The large picture maps have been removed and window-mounted for conservation reasons. The Lhasa map was on display in the exhibition Tibet's Secret Temple held at the Wellcome earlier this year and several of the drawings will also be exhibited in  Monumental Lhasa: Fortress, Palace, Temple, opening in September 2016 at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York

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The Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse in Southern Tibet (Detail from BL Add.Or.3016,  f. 2)
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Illustration of a ceremony taken place in the courtyard of the Nechung Monastery in Lhasa, seat of the former Tibetan State Oracle (BL Add.Or.3043)
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Further reading:

Diana Lange, Journey of Discovery: An Atlas of the Himalayas by a Nineteenth-Century Tibetan Monk. The British Librarys Wise Collection (working title of forthcoming publication).
––– “A Dundee’s Doctor’s Collection(s) on Tibet: Thomas Alexander Wise (1802–1889).” In: Charles Ramble and Ulrike Rösler (eds) Tibetan and Himalayan Healing. An Anthology for Anthony Aris. Kathmandu, 2015: 433–52.
–––“Visual representation of Ladakh and Zangskar in the British Library’s Wise Collection.” In: Robert Linrothe and Heinrich Pöll (eds) Visible Heritage: Essays on the Art and Architecture of Greater Ladakh. New Delhi, 2016: 131-68.
William Edmund Hay, “Report on the Valley of Spiti; and facts collected with a view to a Future Revenue Settlement,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 19 (1850): 429–51.
Charles Horne, “Art. III.—On the Methods of Disposing of the Dead at Llassa, Thibet, etc.,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland 6 (1873): 28–35.
William Howard Russell, My Diary in India, in the Year 1858-59, vol. 2. London, 1860.

 

Diana Lange, Humboldt University Berlin
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11 July 2016

Female figures in Thai illustrations of Buddha’s Birth Tales (Jātaka)

Written texts in Thai Buddhist manuscripts may not always pay much attention to female figures, but the illustrations often depict male and female beings, and sometimes the relationships between them, in a well-balanced manner. Many Jātaka stories of the Birth Tales of the Buddha are unthinkable without female figures, be they Maddi, the wife of Prince Vessantara; or the sea goddess that rescues Prince Janaka; or the young naga maidens who entertain Bhuridatta while meditating.

Although all of the last Ten Birth Tales are very popular among Thai Buddhists, the Vessantara is the best known Jātaka since it is frequently performed on theatre stages set up at annual Buddhist festivals or during temple fairs throughout the country. The Vessantara Jātaka portrays the virtue of charity. It narrates the life of prince Vessantara who from early childhood on shows true generosity and a great sense of charity: he gives away all his possessions, including an elephant that he grew up with, his children, and finally his beloved wife Maddi. However, in the end they all get back together again.

A OR16552 folio 26
19th century folding book from Central Thailand containing a collection of Buddhist texts and illustrations from the Ten Birth Tales. British Library, Or 16552, f. 26 Noc

The people of his kingdom find Vessantara’s generosity distressing and frightening. They persuade Vessantara’s father to take back the kingdom from his son and drive him into exile, where eventually his wife and children follow him. Before their departure, they pay a visit to Vessantara’s mother, Phusati, shown in the illustration above. Phusati, sitting on a high pedestal on the left side, faces Vessantara together with Maddi and their two children sitting on Maddi’s lap. Vessantara pays respects to his mother with a wai gesture, while she pats her son's right shoulder to console him, and to give her blessings for their departure.     

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Thai illustrated manuscript of the Ten Birth Tales, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f. 52 Noc

After their departure from the kingdom, Vessantara and his family decide to live in a forest as hermits. While Maddi collects fruits in the forest for her family, the Brahmin Jujaka meets Vessantara to ask for his two children to become servants for the Brahmin’s wife. Vessantara brokenheartedly gives his children away in an act of ultimate charity. As Jujaka drives the wailing children through the forest, the gods imagine Maddi’s anguish if she were to see them in this state, and so three gods take the form of wild animals in order to block Maddi's path, thus preventing her immediate return to the hermitage. Maddi, kneeling down in front of the three animals, greets them with a wai fearlessly and respectfully, showing her still calm and peaceful state of mind.

Another of the last Ten Jātakas, the Narada Jātaka, tells of the generous King Andati who was deceived by a false ascetic and ceased giving alms to the poor. His only daughter, Ruja, prays for help from the gods to bring her father back to his senses. The Buddha, who exists in this Jātaka as the celestial deity Narada, appears before the king to warn him that those who follow false doctrine will be condemned to a horrific existence in hell.  The king shows remorse and asks Narada for forgiveness, and finally resolves to provide for those living in poverty.

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Central Thai folding book containing a collection of Buddhist texts including the Mahābuddhagunā on the qualities of the Buddha, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 9 Noc

The painting shown above depicts Ruja, King Andati’s daughter, kneeling on a pedestal. She is drawn with a red aura, which is similar to the aura that in Thai manuscript paintings is often associated with the future Buddha, Maitreya, or the saint Phra Malai. Ruja prays to the deity Narada while one of her four female attendants carries an offering bowl. The four-armed deity Narada can be seen in the upper right quarter of the painting, floating in the air.  Ruja is seen as an example of a good daughter and a strong believer in and upholder of Buddhist moral standards, hence her decoration with the aura of a saint.

The Bhuridatta Jātaka tells of the Buddha in a former existence as a naga (serpent) prince, who practices meditation every night under a Banyan tree. He earned the name Bhuridatta because of his wisdom and goodness, and he aims to follow the Eight Precepts. An evil Brahmin and snake charmer named Alambayana obtains magic spells from a hermit in order to capture Bhuridatta and force him to perform in market places so that the Brahmin would earn fame and wealth. The naga prince represses his shame and anger in order to follow the Eight Precepts. Eventually, he is freed by his three brothers.

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Thai folding book dated 1841 A.D. containing extracts from the Abhidhamma, Suttas and the Mahābuddhagunā. British Library, Or 15925, f. 12 Noc

Nagas are believed to be magical serpents who can assume human form when they wish. This painting depicts Bhuridatta practising meditation while coiled around a huge ant hill. In front of the serpent are two naga maidens in human form. The duty of the maidens is to wake up Bhuridatta from his meditation every morning and to escort him back to the realm of the nagas where he spends the daytime, before coming back at night to resume his meditations.    
     
F OR14068 folio 7
Thai manuscript of Mahābuddhagunā and other Buddhist texts, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 7 Noc

The rather dramatic 18th-century illustration above shows a hunter on the left, pointing toward where the Brahmin Alambayana can find the naga prince. Alambayana is on the right, carrying a magic jewel from the naga world. The hunter’s wife is standing behind bushes, trying to hide from the men. Her left hand holding her ear, she seems to be eavesdropping on the two men. She does not want her husband to get involved with the Brahmin, for her utmost concern is the well-being of her family. The painter may have decided to include the hunter’s wife in the scene - holding a machete prominently in her right hand - in recognition of her potential to prevent the capture and humiliation of Bhuridatta.   

Another Jātaka tells of Prince Janaka, who was born in exile after his father was killed by his brother. When grown up, he undertakes a sea voyage to his homeland, but suffers a shipwreck. He struggles to stay alive in the ocean for seven days until he decides to follow the Eight Precepts. Then, the goddess Manimekhala, guardian of the seas, comes to rescue and carry him to his late father’s kingdom Mithila. In the meantime, his uncle - his father’s murderer dies - and the vacant throne will be given to the man who marries the sharp-minded Princess Sivali. Janaka passes many tests and finally wins the throne and Sivali’s heart.

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Janaka Jātaka in a Thai folding book, dated 1841. British Library, Or 15925, f. 7  Noc

In the manuscript above, the lively illumination on the right depicts the disastrous event when Prince Janaka’s ship is sinking, with giant fish ready to swallow the seamen. Prince Janaka can be seen on  the left with the goddess Manimekhala by his side. She is adorned with a red aura that is usually an attribute of the future Buddha or Buddhist saints, or sometimes kings who actively support Buddhism. She is reaching out to Janaka to rescue him from the dangerous waters after Janaka has vowed to follow the Eight Precepts.  

Further reading:

Ginsburg, H. 1989. Thai manuscript painting. London: The British Library.
Ginsburg, H. 2000. Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western collections. London: The British Library.
Napat Sirisambhand and Alec Gordon. 2001.  Seeking Thai gender history: Using historical murals as a source of evidence. IIAS Newsletter 24: 23.
Thongchai Rakpathum. 1983. Rattanakosin painting. Bangkok: Krom Silapakorn.

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

06 July 2016

Intelligence mapping of British East Africa: a new online resource from the British Library

With generous funding from the Indigo Trust the British Library has published online over 550 colonial-era military intelligence maps relating to the former British East Africa: modern-day Kenya and Uganda, and adjacent parts of Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, DR Congo, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The sheets were created between 1890 and 1940, and comprise sketches, surveys and hand-drawn finished maps held at the British Library in the so-called War Office Archive. A dedicated webpage provides easy access to the archive with links to catalogue records and high-res images, which can be viewed on the British Library website or downloaded free of charge from Wikimedia Commons. A Google Maps page provides a geographical index to the sheets. 

GeographicalIndex
A geographical index to sheets in the archive, plotted in Google Maps

The archive is a rich resource not only for researchers of African, colonial and personal history, but also for environmentalists and climate scientists. Many of the sheets represent the earliest systematic surveys of East Africa, and provide historical ethnographic information relating to populations, settlements and regions along with details of historical land use, limits of vegetation, hydrology and much else.

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Umkamba Province, Central Part of, 1901. WOMAT/AFR/BEA/54

This sheet (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/54) was created in 1901 and shows a region to the north and east of Nairobi, which had been founded just two years before – the western limit of detail on the map is approximately seven miles from the centre of the city today. The sheet gives the names and locations of ethnic groups and settlements, and describes areas of habitation, cultivation and vegetation immediately prior to European settlement.

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Detail of (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/54) showing the region around Fort Hall.

At this time the British Government strongly promoted settlement along the length of the newly-constructed Mombasa to Lake Victoria railway line which ran through Nairobi to the south, and the map’s creator, Captain Bertram Dickson, was sent to assess the region’s suitability for settlement and agriculture. The dry tone of his report  is at odds with the delicate inks and watercolours of the map, but the purpose of his expedition is clear:
‘Wherever the surface is flat swamps are found, probably owing to the enormous rainfall, but they could be easily drained… The hills are rough and rocky...and as there is no water on them it is unlikely they could be of much use in agriculture… The soil only needs cultivating to grow almost anything...’
Dickson reveals other, more immediate obstacles to settlement, but these are quickly passed over:
‘Owing to the hostility of the natives at Meruka, it was impossible to traverse this district thoroughly, but it appears that the passage from the cultivated hills to the plains is here more gradual, there being no dividing line of forest…’

Detail_WOMAT_AFR_BEA_275_10
Detail of 'Colony & Protectorate of Kenya. Plans Showing Administrative Boundaries' (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/275/10) also showing the region around Fort Hall.

This later sheet shows how quickly the region was transformed in the years following. It forms part of a set of maps produced in 1924 by the Land Survey Department, Nairobi, and depicts the numerous parcels of land that had been created for sale or lease to European settlers.

The images in this post are made freely available under an Open Government Licence v1.0 (OGL). 

Further reading:

B. Dickson, ‘The Eastern Borderlands of Kikuyu’, The Geographical Journal, 21 no. 1 (Jan., 1930),  36-39

Nicholas Dykes Ccownwork
formerly Cataloguer, War Office Archive, British Library