Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


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

30 November 2015

Laos and the Vietnam War

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For a significant part of the twentieth century Laos was embroiled in armed conflict. The country had been a French protectorate from 1893, following more than a century of Siamese suzerainty. During World War II it was briefly occupied by the Japanese. After World War II, Laos became involved in the regional fight for independence, known as the French Indochina War, which officially ended in 1954. Although Laos gained independence from France in 1953, political instability saw the country descend into civil war, in which foreign parties played significant roles as a result of the regional and world-wide struggles for power during the Cold War era.

Declaration on the neutrality of Laos, signed by representatives of Burma, DR Vietnam, India, Cambodia, Canada, China, Poland, Republic of Vietnam, Soviet Union, Great Britain, USA, Thailand, and France on 23 July 1962. British Library, LP.31.b.467

Despite its neutral status after the French Indochina War, Laos became entangled in the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War (1964 to 1975). The ongoing civil war in Laos, essentially between Royalist, Neutralist and the Communist (Pathet Lao) forces, became part of the greater conflict. By the late 1950s, a large area of eastern Laos was controlled by the Pathet Lao, along with North Vietnamese forces who had crossed the border to lend support. For almost nine years Laos was a battlefield in the armed conflict between neighbouring North Vietnam and the United States.

Rains in the jungle, a collection of short stories by Lao authors translated into English and published in 1967 by the Neo Lao Haksat (Lao Patriotic Front), the political wing of the Pathet Lao, for external propaganda. British Library, YA.1996.a.2640

Les gars du 97, a novel by Phou Louang on the patriotism of the soldiers of a Pathet Lao military unit, translated from Lao into French and published by the Neo Lao Haksat in 1971. British Library, ORW.1986.a.3486

During the war, US forces flew over 500,000 aerial bombing raids over Laos, which were said to aim at gaining control of the Trường Sơn Strategic Supply Route (also known as Ho Chi Minh trail). This logistical system was of crucial relevance in the Vietnam War since it was the only connection between the People’s Army of Vietnam (North Vietnamese Army) and the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam.  More than two million tons of explosive ordnance was dropped on the country, even in areas which were hundreds of kilometres away from the Ho Chi Minh trail. Altogether, more tonnage fell on Laos than was used during the whole of World War II. As a result of this war, Laos remains the most heavily bombed country in human history. Although the war in Laos officially ended in 1973, and subsequently the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was founded on 2 December 1975, the country is still affected by unexploded ordnance and the long-term effects of the use of chemical weapons.

Luksao khong phak (The daughter of the party), a post-war novel in two volumes by S. Bupphanuvong describing the efforts of rebuilding the country after the war. The book was published by the Lao State Publishing House, Vientiane, in 1982. British Library, YP.2006.a.6100

Further reading
Branfman, Fred. Voices from the Plain of Jars: life under an air war. Madison, Wisconsin : The University of Wisconsin Press, [2013]
Impact of the UXO problem. Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (retrieved 17.11.2015)
Stuart-Fox, Martin. A history of Laos. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997
Sutton, Sean and Thongloun Sisoulith et al. Laos, legacy of a secret. Stockport : Dewi Lewis, 2010

Bombing missions in Laos 1965-1973





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

26 November 2015

When Good Literary Taste Was Part of a Bureaucrat’s Job Description

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Ānand Rām Mukhliṣ (1697?-1751) was a high-ranking courtier in Mughal Delhi in the first half of the eighteenth century. He came from a Punjabi Hindu family and followed his father into government service as had so many in the Khattri community, a sub-caste traditionally associated with record-keeping. He was wakīl (personal representative at court) for an imperial prime minister and for a governor of key provinces (see Ahmad), and had received the title ʻRajah of Rajahsʼ (rāʾī-yi rāyān) in recognition of his service. Befitting his stellar career as an administrator, he kept a wide social circle and was associated with the most important Persian poets in Delhi.

Portrait of the Mughal Emperor Muḥammad Shāh and the author's patron, the minister Iʻtimād al-Dawlah Qamar al-Dīn Khān. From Mukhliṣʼs presentation copy of his Kārnāmah-i ‘ishq ʻBook of Affairs of LoveʼArtist: Govardhan II, c.1735 (British Library Johnson Album 38, f. 7v)

Despite the increasing political difficulties of the Mughal crown over the course of the eighteenth century and the hardships endured by Delhi’s inhabitants during successive invasions and waves of unrest, the Indo-Persian literary culture in which Mukhliṣ participated was thriving. There were lavish poetic gatherings (mushāʿirahs) and a person’s literary comportment, namely his mastery of both poetry and prose, was still considered indispensable for political life. Meanwhile scholars were churning out dictionaries and critical tracts, and stretching the limits of Persian literature’s critical tradition, in some cases coming to strikingly modern conclusions about the nature of language and literary aesthetics.

The writing of history is obviously constrained by the sources available and in researching Indian history it is often difficult to find the right material to be able to zero in on particular individuals and their thought. Most Persian texts written in India remain unpublished and are only accessible in manuscript. The British Library’s manuscript holdings are probably unparalleled in the world for being able to provide information about Mukhliṣ and his contemporaries. Most excitingly, the Delhi Persian collection is full of mid-eighteenth-century Indo-Persian critical and educational texts. (Though the collection has always been available for consultation, it is only with the digitisation a few months ago of the notes for a never-published catalogue that many scholars knew of its holdings.)

Mukhliṣ was a prolific and varied writer. He was both a practicing poet and a professional bureaucrat, which at this time required mastery over a range of elegant prose composition styles including letter-writing. He was also a memoirist and wrote about his travels (see Alam and Subrahmanyam 1996).

IO Islamic 1612_ff1-2
Beginning of Aḥvāl-i sīzdah rūzah-i safar-i Garh Muktīsar, a diary, copied by the author, Ānand Rām Mukhliṣ, of his journey to the annual fair at Garmukhteshwar in 1747 and back (British Library IO Islamic 1612, ff.1v-2r)

As a scholar of literature, calligraphy, and painting he wrote works such as the dictionary Mirʾāt al-iṣt̤ilāḥ (which will be the subject of a later post). At least one of his works, the Kārnāmah-yi ʿIshq ʻBook of Affairs of Loveʼ was lavishly illustrated, as explored in a previous blog post by Malini Roy. In writing about his life, scholars have unfortunately not been as prolific as Mukhliṣ himself was. The only monograph on Mukhliṣ—in any language as far as I know—is the published version of a Delhi University PhD thesis from decades ago (James 2011).

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

From Kārnāmah-i ‘ishq, the love-story of Prince Gauhar and Princess Malikah-i Zamani composed in 1731. In this scene Prince Gauhar removes the coverlet from the sleeping princess as proof of his presence in her tent. Artist: Govardhan II, c.1735 (British Library Johnson Album 38, f. 81v)

Mukhliṣ’s house was a meeting place for the great writers of the day. He received his established literary friends as well as poets whom he supported as they tried to make a name for themselves in Delhi. One of his close friends, Ṭek Chand Bahār, not only had a similar career path in the Mughal bureaucracy but like Mukhliṣ wrote a dictionary, the mammoth Bahār-i ʿajam (see a previous post by Muhammad Isa Waley). Both Mukhliṣ and Bahār were friends and students of Sirāj al-Dīn ʿAlī Khān, known as Ārzū, a poet who might be the greatest philologist (that is, what we would call a literary critic and linguist) in the pre-modern Persian tradition (see Dudney 2013). Although Mukhliṣ considered Ārzū one of his teachers and Ārzū was about a decade older than Mukhliṣ, it was Mukhliṣ who facilitated Ārzū’s entrée into Delhi’s elite cultural scene when Ārzū first settled in the city.

DP 491_f11v
The final page and colophon of Mukhliṣʼs Parī khānah ʻFairy Houseʼ, a florid essay on the composition of ornate prose, composed in AH 1144 (1731/32). Copied by Jiyā Rām and dated 2 Rabīʻ I 1259 (2 April 1843) (British Library Delhi Persian 491, f. 11v)

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Extract from Mukhliṣ's dictionary, Mirʾāt al-iṣṭilāḥ, relating to the Peacock Throne (British Library Delhi Persian 491, f.72r)

Every poet had a network of loyalties to his teachers, students, and contemporaries. Mukhliṣ appears to have been associated with a wide network of Hindu Persian writers, as a rare miscellany in the British Library (Delhi Persian 491—for details, see below) suggests by presenting his works alongside those of contemporary Hindu writers. (On Hindu Persian poets in Delhi, see Pellò 2014) Contrary to the received wisdom that a failing political order produces a failed literary tradition, I see the eighteenth century as a time of great innovation in Indo-Persian poetry. Poets were debating the role of tradition as never before and literary criticism was incredibly vibrant. Urdu’s development as a literary language was part of this innovation.

At this time, the literary tradition that would come to be known as Urdu was part of Indian Persianate culture, not an alternative to it. Mukhliṣ lived in the time when the Persian-using and Urdu-using community of Delhi were one and the same—this fact tends to get lost in later accounts that want to emphasise the break between Persian and Urdu—and while he has no surviving Urdu compositions to his name, there is no sense that he is holding himself apart from Indian culture by being an expert in Persian.

Mukhliṣ is relevant in our time because he confounds expectations about India’s past. Some today seek to define Indian culture as static, monolithic, and synonymous with the modern understanding of Hinduism. However, the existence of historical figures like Mukhliṣ is at odds with the worldview of such revisionists. He was perfectly at ease with Persian, even using Islamic devotional formulae in his writing, while being in the eyes of those around him and in his own mind unproblematically a devout Hindu, whatever that meant at the time.

British Library manuscript copies of works by Mukhliṣ
(Follow the hyperlinks for catalogue details)

  • Muraqqaʻ, an album containing autograph letters, documents and poems collected by Mukhliṣ. Or 9236
  • Various short selections from works by Mukhliṣ and his contemporaries. Delhi Persian 491
  • Two texts by Mukhliṣ, (1) Aḥvāl-i sīzdah rūzah-i safar-i Garh Muktīsar, a description of a trip to a fair in Garmukhteshwar (in present-day Uttar Pradesh), and (2) a selection apparently from his autobiographical work Badāʾiʿ-i vaqāʾiʿ describing events in 1746-48. IO Islamic 1612 (Ethé 2724)
  • Dastūr al-ʿamal, a manual on bureaucratic notations, including siyāq numbers. IO Islamic 2932 (Ethé 2125) and Add.6641 (Rieu p. 804
  • Dīvān-i Mukhliṣ, the collected poems of Mukhliṣ. IO Islamic 2093 (Ethé 1707, dated 1744)
  • Intikhāb-i Tuḥfah-i Sāmī, a selection made by Mukhliṣ of the 16th-century Safavid prince Sām Mīrzā’s taz̤kirah. Although the taz̤kirah itself is widely available, this abridgement is apparently only extant in this copy. The copyist was Kripā Rām, and it is likely that this was Mukhliṣ’s son of the same name. Delhi Persian 718
  • Kārnāmah-i ʿishq, a lavishly illustrated poetical romance. Johnson Album 38 (previously discussed by Malini Roy here)
  • Mirʾāt al-Iṣṭilāḥ,  a dictionary. Or.1813 (Rieu p. 997)
  • Poems by Mukhliṣ appear in various compendia, e.g. IO Islamic 2674, (Ethé 2909, but there incorrectly cited as 2764) and in various taz̤kirahs

Further reading

Ahmad, B, “Ānand Rām Mokles: Chronicler, Lexicographer, and Poet of the Later Mughal Period”, Encyclopædia Iranica vol. 2.1, p. 1 (1985).
Alam, Muzaffar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Discovering the Familiar: Notes on the Travel-Account of Anand Ram Mukhlis, 1745,” South Asia Research 16 (October 1996), pp. 131-154.
James, George McLeod, Anand Ram 'Mukhlis': His Life and Works 1695-1758. Delhi: Dilli Kitab Ghar, 2011.
Dudney, Arthur Dale, A Desire for Meaning: Ḳhān-i Ārzū's Philology and the Place of India in the Eighteenth-Century Persianate World. Columbia University Academic Commons, 2013.
Pellò, Stefano, “Persian as a Passe-Partout: The Case of Mīrzā ʿAbd al-Qādir Bīdil and his Hindu Disciples.” In Culture and Circulation: Literature in Motion in Early Modern India, edited by Allison Busch and Thomas de Bruijn. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Arthur Dudney, University of Cambridge

23 November 2015

Royal Malay letters and seals from Pontianak

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In December 1810, Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) arrived in Melaka. He bore the title ‘Agent of the Governor General to the Malay States’, having been entrusted with a confidential mission by Lord Minto, Governor-General of Bengal, to prepare for a British invasion of Java, at that time held by Franco-Dutch forces loyal to Napoleon. Raffles immediately began a flurry of diplomatic letter-writing to neighbouring Malay states, appealing for support, in both moral and practical terms, for the forthcoming British campaign. About 120 original Malay letters sent in reply to Raffles from this period have survived in the Raffles Family Collection (MSS Eur D 742/1). All these Malay letters have now been digitised, and have also been published with the full Malay texts accompanied by English translations by Ahmat Adam (2009).

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Entrance archway to the palace of Pontianak, Istana Kadriah, painted in yellow, the Malay colour of royalty. Photograph by A. Gallop, September 2015.

Naturally some Malay rulers were more disposed to help than others, responses being shaped by a variety of considerations, reflecting local political strategies and interests. A very cordial correspondence ensued between Raffles and Sultan Syarif Kasim (1766-1819), who in 1808 had succeeded as the second ruler of Pontianak (now in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan). As has been emphasized by the historian Mary Somers Heidhues, both Sultan Syarif Kasim and his father Sultan Syarif Abdul Rahman, the founder of Pontianak, ‘used, in a way few of their peers could, their personal relations with Westerners to both manipulate them and hold them at a distance’ (Heidhues 1998: 276). This adroitness is apparent in four original Malay letters from Kasim to Raffles, not least in their beautiful illumination. Three letters date from early 1811, when Raffles was based in Melaka, and one from 1814, by which time the British expedition had successfully taken place, and Raffles was ensconced as Lieutenant-Governor of Java. In the early letters Kasim seeks British support against his neighbour the sultan of Sambas, emphasizing the complicity of Sambas in the seizure of a British ship, the Commerce, and the murder of her crew, while in the letter of 1814 Kasim reports that all is now calm around Sambas and that the seas are safe from piracy. Kasim is also most solicitous to respond to any requests Raffles might have made for rarities, and with one letter he sends a pair of orangutans. In the long letter shown below he mentions that he is sending two Malay manuscripts requested by Raffles – a legal text, Undang-undang, and the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain – as well as a golden spear.

Letter from Sultan Syarif Kasim of Pontianak to Thomas Stamford Raffles in Melaka, 20 Muharam 1226 (14 February 1811). British Library, MSS Eur D 742/1, f. 33a.  noc

Letter from Sultan Syarif Kasim of Pontianak to T.S. Raffles in Batavia, Java, 15 Safar 1229 (6 February 1814). British Library, MSS Eur E 378/1.  noc

As can be seen from the two letters shown above, royal Malay letters from Pontianak were sometimes beautifully illuminated, with gold patterns stamped by hand on European-made watermarked paper. All four letters bear Sultan Syarif Kasim’s sovereign seal, with a lengthy inscription in Arabic: al-wāthiq billāh al-Khāliq al-Bārī wa-huwa ‘abduka al-Sulṭān al-Sayyid al-Sharīf Qāsim ibn al-marḥūm al-Sulṭān al-Sayyid al-Sharīf ‘Abd al-Raḥman ibn al- marḥūm al-Ḥabīb Husayn al-Qadrī // Yā Budūḥ Yā Maḥḍār Yā Ḥāfīẓ Y[ā] Ḥafīẓ Yā Kāfī Yā Muḥīt Ma‘rūf al-Karkhī, ‘He who trusts in God, the Creator, the Maker, and he is Your servant, the Sultan Sayid Syarif Kasim, son of the late Sultan Sayid Syarif Abdul Rahman, son of the late Habib Husain al-Kadri // O Buduh! O Presence! O Guardian! O All Preserving One! O Sufficient One! O Comprehending One! Ma'ruf al-Karkhi’.

Seal of Sultan Syarif Kasim, from a letter to Raffles, 16 Safar 1226 (12 March 1811). British Library, MSS Eur D 742/1, f.32 (detail)

In the middle of the seal is Sultan Syarif Kasim’s name and title together with those of his father and grandfather, while the border bears a religious inscription comprising appeals to God, addressed by a selection of His ‘Beautiful Names’ (al-āsmā' al-ḥusnā). The border inscription is not easy to decipher, for the words are written in ‘disconnected letters’, which is in fact an amuletic device often found in Islamic manuscripts believed to strengthen the power of the words so treated. Certain elements of the border inscription are more unambiguously talismanic in nature: Ma‘rūf al-Karkhī (d. 800) was a Sufi saint who lived in Baghdad, whose name is frequently invoked for protection in Malay letters and seals, while Budūḥ is an artificial amuletic word derived from a magic square. This border inscription and the iconic octagonal diamond shape of the seal were introduced by Kasim's father Abdul Rahman, who founded Pontianak in 1772, and all subsequent sovereign seals of sultans of Pontianak, up till the end of the 19th century, exhibit these characteristic features.

Sultan Syarif Kasim’s seal is also notable for its fine calligraphy, with certain letters (such as the yā’ of Bārī and the lām-sīn ligature of al-Sulṭān) dramatically extended to ‘support’ the lines of the inscription. These ‘extended letter lines’ are a characteristic feature of some seals from Pontianak and neighbouring Mempawah. In two of Kasim’s earlier seals, from his time as crown prince of Pontianak and ruler (Panembahan) of neighbouring Mempawah, the inscriptions appear to be placed on ruled lines. A close inspection reveals, however, that the straight lines are in fact stylized letters, which are indicated with asterisks in the reading of the inscriptions given below.

  #56 #54

(Left) Seal of Syarif Kasim as ruler of Mempawah, inscribed: al-wāthiq billāh al-Malik al-Bārī* Panembahan Sharīf Qāsim īm bin al-Sulṭān* Sharīf ‘Abd al-Raḥman al-Qadrī*, ‘He who trusts in God, the King, the Maker, Panembahan Syarif Kasim, son of the Sultan Abdul Rahman al-Kadri’. From a letter to the Dutch Governor-General in Batavia, 25 Zulkaidah 1207 (4 July 1793). Leiden University Library, Cod.Or.2239.I.14.

(Right) Seal of Syarif Kasim as ruler of Mempawah, inscribed al-wāthiq bi-‘ināyat Allāh al-Malik al-Bārī* Pangiran* Sharīf Qāsim bin al-Sulṭān* Sharīf ‘Abd al-Raḥman al-Qadrī*, ‘He who trusts in the favour of God, the King, the Maker, Pangiran Syarif Kasim, son of the Sultan Abdul Rahman al-Kadri’.  From a letter from the chiefs of Mempawah to the Dutch Governor-General in Batavia, 1 Rabiulawal 1204 (19 November 1789). Leiden University Library, Cod.Or.2239.I.4.

In compiling data on Islamic seals from west Kalimantan, I was greatly assisted by an eminent local historian of Pontianak, Dato' Drs Hei Abang Zahry Abdullah, after meeting at a conference at the Brunei History Centre in 2006. Although Bapak Zahry sadly passed away a few years ago, on a recent visit to Pontianak in September 2015 to attend the International Conference on Nusantara Manuscripts, I was glad to have the opportunity to meet his widow to express my appreciation of Bapak Zahry's invaluable work.

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With Ibu Zahry in Pontianak in September 2015, with on the wall a photograph with Bapak Zahry in Brunei in 2006.

Ahmat Adam, Letters of sincerity: the Raffles collection of Malay letters (1780-1824), a descriptive account with notes and translation. Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2009. (Monograph; 43); see pp. 286-297 on Pontianak.
Annabel Teh Gallop,The legacy of the Malay letter.  Warisan warkah Melayu. With an essay by E. Ulrich Kratz.  London: published by the British Library for the National Archives of Malaysia, 1994.
Annabel Teh Gallop, The amuletic cult of Ma'ruf al-Karkhi in the Malay worldWritings and writing: investigations in Islamic text and script in honour of Dr Januarius Just Witkam, ed. by Robert M. Kerr & Thomas Milo; pp.167-196.  Cambridge: Archetype, 2013.
Mary Somers Heidhues, The first two sultans of Pontianak.  Archipel, 1998, 56: 273-94.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork