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

24 October 2016

Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts: conference at the British Library, 21 November 2016

You are welcome to join us in a conference celebrating the end of Phase 1 of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (HMDP) and the beginning of Phase 2! This conference will take place on Monday, 21 November 2016, at the Bronte Room, British Library Conference Centre (map) – programme is available here.

The first session will be dedicated to the British Library’s digitised collection of Hebrew manuscripts. Ilana Tahan, the Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections, will begin the session with her presentation about the history of the collection and the people who contributed to its creation. Miriam Lewis, the HMDP Project Manager, will then talk about the workflow of digitisation and the different work strands, including conservation, cataloguing, imaging, and online presentation. Closing this session, Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, the project’s Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow), will talk about digital scholarship, and will especially focus on how people can access the digitised manuscripts – the images, metadata, content, updates, and how the Library can help.

The second session will look more broadly at what the Library has to offer to students and researchers. Allan Sudlow (Head of Research Development) and James Perkins (Research & Postgraduate Development Manager) will explore the opportunities the Library has to offer to graduate students and academics, such as collaborative research and PhD placements. Mahendra Mahey, head of British Library Labs, will introduce this initiative and how it encourages and supports the innovative use of the Library’s digital collection and data. Closing the session, Digital Curator Mia Ridge will talk about the current platform for viewing manuscripts (Digitised Manuscripts), and the next generation - a viewer based on the Universal Viewer technology.

1 - DM
Digitised Manuscripts website showing a 15th century Sefer ha-Zohar (British Library Add MS 17745)

During an extended lunch break, attendees will be able to browse through digitised Hebrew manuscripts (or any other digitised manuscripts for this matter!) on Digitised Manuscripts, using laptops set up for this purpose.

The afternoon sessions will cover other projects working with digitised Hebrew manuscripts in UK university libraries as well as the National Library of Israel (NLI). Aviad Stollman, Head of Collections Division at the NLI, and Tsafra Siew, KTIV Project Manager will talk about the KTIV project to digitise and make available all Hebrew manuscripts worldwide. This project follows from the work of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, which has been collecting microfilm copies of Hebrew manuscripts from around the world for the last 60 years. In collaboration with the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society (FJMS), the NLI initiated the renewal of this collection. In the framework of this enterprise, tens of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts will be digitised and made available online. Aviad will focus on the reasons why the NLI sees this project as a priority, why manuscripts as a medium are so significant, and why it is crucial to preserve and disseminate them. Tsafra will elaborate on the project’s short and long term goals.

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Website for KTIV: The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts

Cesar Merchan-Hamann, Hebrew and Judaica Curator at the Bodleian Libraries (University of Oxford), will follow with an overview of the Vatican-Bodleian Polonsky Digitization Project. Focusing particularly on Hebrew and Judaica manuscripts, Cesar will explore the scope of the project, the choice of manuscripts to be digitised, the methodology regarding the metadata, the electronic catalogue, the search programme and the project website.

3 - Bodleian
Website for the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project

After the break we’ll be joined by Renate Smithuis, Lecturer in Medieval Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester. Renate will present the Crawford and Gaster Hebrew collections at the John Rylands Library and the creation of an online catalogue as part of a new digital platform. This digitisation project focuses on codices, scrolls, amulets and other texts in Hebrew script. These are being captured in text (using TEI) and image with the aim of producing a complete online catalogue.

Closing our conference is Gabriele Ferrario from the Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Library. Gabriele will talk about the Mellon Trust funded project to text-mine a manuscript catalogue for the documentary materials of the Cairo Genizah. The discovery of research material on tens of thousands of manuscript fragments is difficult and time-consuming due to the lack of reliable catalogue descriptions for the greater part of this collection. Drawing on a century of published scholarship on the collection, this project will automate the production of metadata. Gabriele will present the aims, methodology and results of this project and consider possible future developments.

We’re hoping to see you with us on this special event dedicated to Hebrew manuscripts! Registration is free, but please book your place as space is limited:

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow), Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork

17 October 2016

1500 titles of Thai printed books added to the British Library’s electronic catalogue

The Library’s Thai collection contains more than 6000 titles of printed books, pamphlets and grey literature in Thai language, dating from the mid-19th century onwards. Due to a generous gift by Christian missionaries of about 100 books and pamphlets, the earliest period of printing in Thailand, from ca.1840-1890, is well represented, including a copy of the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Great Britain and Siam (Siam.29), also known as the Bowring Treaty, which was printed by J.H. Chandler at the Washington Press in Bangkok in 1856.

Phra Malai orb99 216
A printed version of Phra Malai, the legend of a Buddhist Saint who travelled to heaven and hell. This third edition in folding book format was printed in 1956 at S. Thammaphakdi Publishers in Bangkok. British Library, ORB.99/216 f.1

Numerous first editions, funeral volumes and government publications were acquired from the National Library of Thailand (formerly Vajiranana Library) in the first decades of the 20th century. From 1973 onwards, the British Library has systematically collected Thai publications on Thai art and culture, history, literature, anthropology, Buddhism, archaeology, law, politics and social issues. Recent acquisitions of contemporary publications are normally made by purchase, but occasionally antiquarian books are also added to the collection to fill gaps.

Caricature of a Thai chief police officer by King Vajiravudh in his book “Phap phrahat” (Bangkok, 1920). British Library, Siam.260, p.19

The earliest shelfmark sequences for Thai books begin with ‘Siam’, followed by a number. Acquisitions between 1986 and 2000 have shelfmarks beginning ‘SEA’, while some rare books have shelfmarks beginning ‘ORB’.

Until recently, Thai printed books and serials acquired before 1986 were only accessible through a card catalogue in the British Library’s Asian & African Studies Reading Room, with author, title and subject sequences. However, in the past few years, efforts have been made to retroconvert card catalogues in Asian languages through internships, temporary cataloguing contracts and crowdsourcing initiatives like Libcrowds. Thanks to a four-month internship for Dr Thanyarat Apiwong in 2015, over 1500 book titles from the Thai card catalogue have now been added to the British Library’s electronic catalogue Explore, increasing the number of Thai book titles searchable electronically to over 5000.

Example of a catalogue card showing basic bibliographic details of a Thai book, in Thai and partially romanised script.

The collection is particularly strong in publications by King Chulalongkorn, King Vajiravudh and Princess Sirindhorn as well as many other important scholarly and popular Thai authors like Phaya Anuman Rajadhon, Prince Damrong, Kukrit Pramoj, Botan, Kulap Saipradit, Chart Korbjitti, Khamsing Srinawk, Pira Sudham etc.  A  very small selection of rare Thai books from the Library’s holdings were fully digitised in collaboration with Northern Illinois University and include works on history, warfare, law, and literature, and are available on the Southeast Asia Digital Library.

Orb30 5539
An early photograph of a Southern Thai Nora dancer in Prince Damrong’s book “Tamra fon ram” on Thai classical dance, first edition printed at Sophon Publishers, Bangkok, 1923. British Library, ORB.30/5539, p.82

Translations of Buddhist, Chinese, Lao, Burmese and Western literary works into Thai language form one small though important part of the Thai collection. These include translations by King Vajiravudh of works by Molière, William Shakespeare, Sax Rohmer, Arthur Moreland and Georges Courteline. Some of these publications are among the finest examples of Thai printing and book binding, often adorned with gold decorations.

Translation of Sax Rohmer’s “Golden scorpion” by King Vajiravudh, under the pseudonym Rammachitti, published ca. 1925 in Bangkok. British Library, Siam.284, front cover

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

10 October 2016

The Archive of Yogyakarta digitised

The ‘Archive of Yogyakarta’ refers to a collection of some four hundred manuscript documents in Javanese dating from 1772 to 1813, originating from the court of Yogyakarta. A highly important source for the political, economic, social, administrative and legal history of central Java in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the archive comprises official reports, letters, accounts and other documents as well as the private papers of Sultan Hamengkubuwana II (r. 1792-1810, 1811-1812, 1826-1828) and his successor Sultan Hamengkubuwana III (r. 1812-1814). Together with many other Javanese manuscripts on literary, historical and religious subjects held in the royal library, the documents were taken during the British assault on the palace of Yogyakarta in June 1812, and subsequently entered the private collections of three senior officials of the British administration in Java (1811-1816): Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor of Java; Colin Mackenzie, Chief Engineer; and John Crawfurd, then Resident of Yogyakarta. The documents were evidently selected by Crawfurd, whose collection was later acquired by the British Museum in 1842, and is now held in the British Library. Currently bound in four volumes (Add. 12303, Add. 12341, Add. 12342 and Add. 14397), the Archive of Yogyakarta has recently been fully digitised and can be accessed directly through the hyperlinks in this post or on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website.

Anonymous sketch of the Water Palace (Taman Sari) of Yogyakarta, 1812. Mackenzie Private collection. British Library, MSS Eur. E118, f.29.   noc

The ‘Archive of Yogyakarta’ is the name given to this treasure trove of documents by the historian Peter Carey, who stresses the extraordinary and perhaps unique historical value of the collection: ‘For almost the first time in Javanese, and perhaps even in Southeast Asian, history, pre-colonial studies can be based on the activities of local actors themselves documented by their own records’ (Carey & Hoadley 2000: 435). Under the auspices of the British Academy, the complete Archive has been published in two volumes, with detailed summaries of the contents and full transliterations of the Javanese text for each document. The first volume presents 106 documents on politics and internal court matters (Carey 1980), while the second volume focuses on economic and agrarian affairs (Carey & Hoadley 2000).  But the second volume also draws on the first in presenting all 420 documents as sources for the history of the Yogyakarta administration in the following five categories: 1) governmental decisions, including letters of appointment, royal orders, legal digests, documents on statute law, treaties and judicial decisions; 2) material resources in the form of appanages [i.e. sources of provision for members of the royal house] and military resources of the realm; 3) court correspondence, both incoming and outgoing; 4) accountancy records, showing both credit in the form of taxes, loans and contributions, and debit from allowances and cash outlays; and 5) miscellaneous documents, including those relating to religious affairs. This thematic presentation was achieved with considerable effort, for three of the four volumes were bound by Crawfurd in a completely random order: ‘land grants for royal officials and lists of revenue payments are mixed up with sumptuary laws [i.e. laws to limit extravagant consumption], political correspondence between the Sultan and the Residents and notes on disputes over villages. More intimate items such as allowances for court ladies, petty kraton accounts, payments for pradikan officials, challenges to cockfights, instructions on fasting (amutih, patih geni) and letters of praise with imagery from the wayang are also interspersed indiscriminately throughout the three volumes’ (Carey 1980: 3).

Appanage grant from Sultan Hamengkubuwana II to Bendara Raden Ayu Srenggara, the principal unofficial wife of Sultan Hamengkubuwana I and the mother of Pakualam I, granting her 56 manpower units (cacah) in named villages, 21 Sura A.J. 1721 (18 August 1794) (Carey & Hoadley 2000: 14). British Library, Add. 12342, f. 253r   noc

List of hajis, palace santris [religious scholars], and their followers sent to Mecca in 1806 by Sultan Hamengkubuwana II [4 February 1806], begins: Punika pémut pratélangipun utusan-Dalem ingkang badhé dhateng Mengkah … (Carey 1980: 172-3). British Library, Add. 12341, f. 78r  noc

Letter from Sultan Hamengkubuwana II and the Crown Prince of Yogyakarta to John Crawfurd, 18 Dulkangidah A.J. 1738 (4 Dec 1811), written in Javanese in Pégon (Arabic) script (Carey 1980: 79-81). This is one of a number of letters from the sultan and senior court officials to British officials not from the court library, but which were evidently taken by Crawfurd from the British Residency archives in Yogyakarta to add to his private collection. British Library, Add. 12341, f. 146v  noc

The historical value of this archive is beyond doubt, primarily for - as highlighted by the compilers of the second volume - 'the lack of correspondence between what contemporary European accounts deemed important and what the contents of The Archive of Yogyakarta seems to suggest is vital from a Javanese perspective' (Carey & Hoadley 2000: 4). But the documents are also an exceptionally rich source for the study of formal Javanese diplomatics, to be mined for data on the palaeography, phraseology, nomenclature and internal structure of different types of governmental documents, as well as guiding principles on the use and placement of seals, choice of script (whether the Indic-derived Javanese script, read from left to right, or  Pégon, the adapted form of Arabic script which is read from right to left) and materials (whether imported Dutch or other European rag paper, or dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the paper mulberry tree).

Octagonal seal of Sultan Hamengkubuwana II, inscribed in the centre in Javanese: Ingkang pratandha Kangjeng Sinuhun Hamengkubuwana Sénapati Ingalaga Ngabdurrahman Sayidin Panatagama Kalipatulah (Carey 1980: 76), 'This is the seal of the exalted majesty who carries the world in his lap, the commander of the army in war, servant of the Most Merciful One, lord of the faith, protector of religion, vicegerent of God' (cf. Carey & Hoadley 2000: 436). The tiny inscription in Arabic script in the border has not yet been read. British Library, Add. 12342, f. 208r (detail)   noc

The four volumes of the Archive of Yogyakarta have been digitised by the British Library as part of an ongoing collaboration with the Libraries and Archives Board of the Special District of Yogyakarta (Badan Perpustakaan and Arsip Daerah Istimewa Yoyakarta, BPADIY), focusing on those Javanese manuscripts in the British Library identified by Carey as originating from Yogyakarta. On a recent visit to Yogyakarta, on 22 September 2016 copies of the digitised images of the Archive of Yogyakarta were presented to His Excellency the Governor of Yogyakarta, H.M. Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwana X (the sultan of Yogyakarta is the only hereditary ruler in Indonesia also accorded a constitutional role, in recognition of the heroic support of Sultan Hamengkubuwana IX for the fledgling Republic of Indonesia during the Indonesian revolution, 1945-1949).

With H.E. the Governor of Yogyakarta, H.M. Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwana X (third from left) and staff of the Libraries and Archives Board (BPADIY) including head of BPADIY Budi Wibowo (second from left), at the 18th-century Kadipaten, former premises of the Crown Prince of Yogyakarta and now the gubernatorial office. Photo by Suhardo, 22 September 2016.

Looking at manuscripts in the Widya Budaya library in the palace of Yogyakarta, with royal librarian K.R.T. Rintaiswara (second left) and staff of the Libraries and Archives Board of Yogyakarta. Photo by A.T. Gallop, 24 September 2016.  noc

After the British sack of the court of Yogyakarta, only three manuscripts were left in the royal library: a copy of the Qur’an (copied in 1797), the Serat Suryaraja (1774), and a copy of Arjuna Wiwaha (1778) (Carey 1980: 13, n. 11). The manuscripts currently held in the Widya Budaya library therefore mostly postdate 1812, and Romo Rinto shows here a volume of archive documents in Javanese dating from the mid-19th century. Photo by A.T. Gallop, 24 September 2016.  noc


Carey, P. B. R. (ed.), The archive of Yogyakarta.  Volume I.  Documents relating to politics and internal court affairs.  Oxford: published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 1980 (Oriental Documents; 3).
Carey, Peter and Hoadley, Mason C. (eds.), The archive of Yogyakarta.  Volume II.  Documents relating to economic and agrarian affairs.  Oxford: published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2000. (Oriental Documents; 11).

One other Javanese manuscript from the Yogyakarta palace library now held in the British Library which has been digitised is the beautifully illuminated Serat Jayalengkara Wulang (MSS Jav 24), described in another blog post: A Javanese manuscript artist at work.

For a full list of Malay and Indonesian manuscripts in the British Library which have been digitised, see our Digital Access to Malay and Indonesian manuscripts webpage.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork