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

21 February 2017

Knowledge Exchange visit to the National Library of China

As part of “The British Library in China Project, the Library recently set up a series of Knowledge Exchange programmes with partners across mainland China and Hong Kong. Gemma Renshaw, Loans Coordinator at the Library, and Robert Davies, Editorial and Rights Manager of the Library’s Publishing team, were the two colleagues selected to visit the National Library of China (NLC) in Beijing in December. The aim of the trip was to learn from the host institution and to explore new terrain for future skills-sharing activities and collaboration.

01 Rob D and Gemma R in front of NLC_2000
Robert Davies and Gemma Renshaw on the first day of their visit to the National Museum of Classical Books at the National Library of China. © British Library in China

The British Library in China Project is a UK government-funded, three-year project designed to strengthen cultural ties between the two countries. The first of a series of exhibitions will be held at the NLC from April 2017 and will feature 11 iconic items from the British Library collections, including an early edition of the works of Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle’s manuscripts. As part of this project, the Library is also developing a Chinese-language website based on the successful “Discovering Literature” platform, to introduce English literature authors and themes to the Chinese public.

02 Guoni welcoming BL staff_2000
Ms Guo Ni from the NLC International Office welcomed the Library colleagues. From left to right: Robert Davies, Gemma Renshaw, Guo Ni and Tan Wang-Ward. © British Library in China

While working closely together to develop a large-scale, joint exhibition, the Library and the NLC are now collaborating in new and exciting ways. The preparation of the joint exhibition has involved several months of fruitful interactions, including video conference calls between teams in London and Beijing. These regular conversations have increased mutual understanding, which helps tremendously when two organisations have different working methods and operating languages.

For Gemma, one of the important objectives of this trip was directly related to the upcoming exhibition. She hoped to find out more details about the exhibition hall facilities and conditions, as well as to finally meet the colleagues in Beijing with whom she had remotely worked for so many months! Gemma writes:

(On the first day of visit) we arrived early at the NLC and were introduced to the Exhibitions and Property Management teams. They showed us around the gallery that we’ll be displaying our objects in and we talked about the display cases, the types of objects they usually show, how the exhibition hall can be laid out for our joint exhibition and how practical work is divided between the two teams. It was really helpful for me to talk to both teams because they split the work that is done by my department at the Library between them. Also, seeing for myself what the gallery and the store room were like allowed me to get answers to important questions regarding security and exhibition hall environment, which otherwise would require a lot of email exchanges and translation help from my Chinese-speaking colleagues at the Library.

Robert paid a visit to the National Library of China Press. This trip provided a valuable opportunity for Robert to build direct contact with the NLC Press. As Robert says:

The visit to the National Library of China Press was a fascinating glimpse into the very different context of museum and library publishing in China. Our counterparts at the NLC Press have a large staff (over 100!) and publish many deeply scholarly books, curating and preserving China’s traditional literary culture for a highly specialist audience. Compared to the BL press, the NLC press focuses much more strictly on its own collection and on Chinese books.

The British Library has longstanding relationships with NLC Press for key projects – works about the Diamond Sutra, for example – but we have never had direct publisher-to-publisher contact in the past. There are clear opportunities for strengthening our partnership in future years – for example, facsimiles of ancient Chinese books and manuscripts as well as the on-going project on the retro-conversion in electronic format of the catalogues of our exceptional holdings of Chinese material from the early republican period.

This visit gave me a unique chance to see these projects from the other side and to build direct contact with editors and publishers – who were generous with their time in showing me their neighbourhood near the beautiful lakes of Beihai Park in central Beijing and provided an extremely delicious Peking duck lunch….

In addition to the NLC press, Robert also visited one of the most popular local bookstores – San Lian Bookstore, which is open 24/7 and is so vast that it spreads over three floors in the central area of Beijing:

Visiting a flagship Chinese bookshop was a great opportunity to find out more about the market for books in China – how they are priced, what cover designs and binding styles are used, and how translated Western books are categorised and sold among Chinese original works. It was also surprising (and inspiring) to see a very traditional bookshop – no café, and no gift products – busy with customers, late into the evening.


03 NLC exhibition with Lei Qiang_2000
Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies with Mr Lei Qiang from the Exhibition Department of the NLC. © British Library in China

04 audience participation corner_2000
A corner for audience participation at an NLC exhibition dedicated to the guqin, a traditional Chinese musical instrument that was often associated with scholarly life. © British Library in China

The exhibitions on display at the National Museum of Classical Books of the NLC were particularly interesting and informative: new media and interactive technologies have found their way into the NLC exhibition displays and narratives. For Robert, the highlight of visiting the exhibitions was a guided tour of the oracle bones gallery, which has an immersive set-up supported by multi-media projection and ambient sound effect. The way that the exhibition curator had made a complex and specialist subject into an accessible, interesting and hands-on gallery was very impressive.

Other activities of the Knowledge Exchange visit to the NLC included a tour of the book conservation studio and of the Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy department. In the conservation studio, the traditional Chinese way of master-apprentice knowledge transmission is still very prominent, demonstrated by the way the room is arranged: the master conservators’ desks are positioned in the central area of the room while apprentices’ desks are on the right side of the room by the windows.

While we were there a conservator was working on her research on paper colouration. She was using Chinese brush and mineral paints and experimented combining the paint with a wide range of materials to see which combination would better match with that of an aged page from an old book. This type of approach to paper is rooted in the long history of bookbinding and book conservation in China.

The NLC conservation studio is equipped with very advanced technology machinery, including two labs for paper testing and analysis and a newly established Western Books conservation lab, which the studio manager very kindly introduced to us. This new lab is led by Xiao Yu, a young conservator who studied at the Camberwell College of Arts and has a remarkable knowledge base of both Chinese and Western book bindings and materials.

05 Visit to the conservation studio_2000
Visit to the conservation studio at the NLC. © British Library in China

At the Department of Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy we were given a fascinating insight into the large collection of Chinese rubbings. Chinese rubbings are paper copies of the surface of engraved items or reliefs. As a technique, rubbings enjoy a long history of more than 1,500 years in China and East Asian countries. As objects, rubbings represent an invaluable medium for preserving the history and culture contained within important stone stele, bronze vessels and objects in other material such as brick and jade. We were shown how to make rubbings out of a beautiful ink-stone engraved with plum blossoms: a piece of traditional Chinese rice paper was laid flat on the ink-stone and carefully moistened with sprayed water. After the paper dried but remained stuck to the ink-stone, an inkpad with some ink was carefully and lightly pressed on the paper, leaving an ink impression of the plum blossoms image as the carved parts of the engravings were left white on the paper.

06 expert at rubbings department_2000
An expert at the NLC showing how to make a rubbing out of the ink-stone engraved with a plum blossom pattern. © British Library in China

Creating a Chinese rubbing is a delicate task: it requires extensive experience to balance the level of the moisture in the paper, the quantity of ink and the correct pressure. The British Library’s Chinese collection hosts a collection of Chinese rubbings, and the Curators of the Chinese section hope to work together with the NLC in future to gain specialist knowledge on how to better conserve, catalogue, store and digitise them.

07 group photo at rubbings department
Experts of the Department of Ancient Rubbings and Epigraphy at the NLC welcomed Library staff Gemma Renshaw and Tan Wang-Ward. © British Library in China

The Knowledge Exchange programme will continue alongside the three-year exhibitions project in China and will consist of a series of reciprocal visits between staff members of different areas and departments of the British Library and the Chinese partner institutions, including Shanghai Library and Mu Xin Art Museum in Wuzhen.


Tan Wang-Ward, Project Assistant to “British Library in China” Project, with thanks to Gemma Renshaw and Robert Davies for their contributions.
 CC-BY-SA

17 February 2017

Kammavaca: Burmese Buddhist ordination manuscripts

Kammavaca is a Pali term describing an assemblage of passages from the Tipitaka –  the Theravada Buddhist canon –  that relate to ordination, the bestowing of robes, and other rituals of monastic life. A Kammavaca is a highly ornamental type of manuscript usually commissioned by lay members of society as a work of merit, to be presented to monasteries when a son enters the Buddhist Order as a novice or becomes ordained as a monk. The novitiation ceremony of a Buddhist monk is an important family ritual, the main purpose being to gain merit for their future life. A novice may remain a monk for as long as he wishes, whether for one week or one season of lent or even for life, and he may undergo the initiation ceremony as many times as he likes. The most important Kammavaca were prepared for the upasampada (higher ordination), the ritual for the ordination of a Buddhist monk. 

Add15289.1
British Library, Add. 15289, f. 1v, top outer leaf  noc
Add15289
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script on gilded and lacquered palm leaf, 18th century. The outer leaf, shown above, has eight octagonal panels with lotus patterns within circles, while the leaf below shows the beginning of the ordination text (upasampada), flanked by similar larger lotus patterns. British Library, Add. 15289, f.1.  noc

Kammavaca manuscripts are written on a variety of materials, primarily on palm leaf but also on stiffened cloth, or gold, silver, metal or ivory sheets in the shape of palm leaf. Thickly applied lacquer or gilded decoration appears on the leaves themselves and also on the cover boards. The Pali text is written in black lacquer in ornate Burmese characters known as ‘tamarind-seed’ script, also refered to as ‘square’ script, which differs from the usual round Burmese writing. Some attractive and unusual Kammavaca may be made from discarded monastic robes thickly covered with black lacquer, with inlaid mother-of-pearl letters.

Or12010H.1
British Library, Or. 12010H, f.1v  noc
Or12010H
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script on ivory, 18th century. The outer leaf shown at the top is lacquered and gilded with birds and lotuses in octagonal panels, while  the opening leaf of the ordination section (upasampada) shown below has black lacquered text and gilded lotus patterns. British Library, Or. 12010H, f. 1r  noc

In the 12th century, the Sihala Ordination was introduced into Burma by Chappaṭa who had studied the canon and commentaries in Sri Lanka. In the 15th century, Sri Lanka was again turned to as the source of orthodoxy, and in 1476, twenty two disciples and chosen bhikkhus (monks) were sent in two ships to the island. They were duly ordained by the Mahavihara monks at the consecrated sima or ordination hall on the Kalyani River, near Colombo. Upon the return of these monks, King Dhammaceti (1471-1492) built the Kalyani Sima in Pegu (Bago), to which bhikkhus from neighbouring countries came to receive ordination.

Two types of ordination ceremonies are held in sima: ordination for novices (Pabbajja), and ordination for monks (Upasampada). To become a novice, the follower has to recite the Ten Precepts as well as the Three Refuges for a monk.  In order to become a monk, the Sangha or monastic community will perform the Upasampada ordination on fulfillment of the five conditions: Perfection of a person, Perfection of an assembly, Perfection of the Sima, Perfection of the motion, and Perfection of the Kammavaca. The most senior monk will lead the assembly for the newly-ordained monk, while selected monks will recite the Kammavaca taking great care with articulation and pronunciation.

Or12010E.1
British Library, Or. 12010E, front board  noc
Or12010E
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, written on palm leaf, 19th century. Shown at the top is the binding board, with lacquered and gilt lotuses in roundels; below is the text written in black lacquer on a red lacquer ground. British Library, Or. 12010E, f. 1r  noc

Or13896.1
British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1r  noc
Or13896.2
British Library, Or. 13896, f. 16r  noc
Or13896
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, written on metal gilded and lacquered in red, 19th century. British Library, Or. 13896, f. 1v  noc

The outer sides of the first and last leaves of the Kammavaca manuscript shown above (Or. 13896) have unusual and fine decoration in gold and red of scenes from the Buddha’s life. At the top, Prince Siddhartha cuts off his hair with his sword, the symbolic gesture of the renunciation, and Sakka, the king of the celestial abodes, receives it, while on the right devas present a robe and alms bowl to Prince Siddhartha. On the final leaf shown in the middle, when Prince Siddhartha becomes a monk, Sakka plays the harp to show Siddhartha the way to the Middle Path, and devas come to pay respects. The outer margins of text leaves are decorated with deva.

Or12010A.1
British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1v, outer front board   noc
Or12010A.2
British Library, Or. 12010A, inner front board with donor's name  noc
Or 12010A
Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, lacquered cloth, with gilded and lacquered boards, 19th century. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r.  noc

The leaves of this manuscript (Or. 12010A) consist of cloth thickly covered with lacquer to provide a rigid surface, which is then gilded with background decoration of floral sprigs. In the margins are depicted kneeling deva or celestial figures with their hands clasped in reverence for the Kammavaca text. The text leaves are stored between a pair of bevelled binding boards, red on the inside, and lacquered and gilt on the outside, with devas within panels. A Burmese inscription on the inside of the top board of this Kammavaca records that the manuscript was a pious gift of lay devotee U Tha Hsan and his wife Ma Lun.

The manuscript contains the following Kammavaca texts: Upasampada  (Official Act for the conferment of the Higher Ordination), Kathinadussadana (Official Act for the holding of the Kathina ceremony), Ticivarena-avippavasa (text for the investiture of a monk with the three robes), Sima-sammannita (Official Act for the Agreement of boundary limits), Thera-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon the seniority of theras), Nama-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon a name), Vihara-kappa-bhumi-sammuti (text of the dedication of a Vihara), Kuṭi-vatthu-sammuti (Official Act to search and agree upon a site for a hut), Nissaya-muti-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon relaxation of the requisites). 

The leaves of the various Kammavaca manuscripts illustrated in this post range are made of various materials including palm leaf, ivory, metal and lacquered cloth, and range in size from 50 to 60 cm in length, and from 10 to 15 cm in width. The outer sides of the first and final leaves of the Kammavaca are usually decorated with panels of birds, lotus, flower and leaf designs, devas, figures of the Buddha and geometric patterns. The leaves have two holes in them in which small bamboo sticks are usually inserted in order to hold the leaves together, and the leaves are bound between decorated binding boards. Kammavaca were usually wrapped in woven or silk wrappers, and secured with a woven ribbon and placed in a gilded box.

Further reading:
To Cin Khui, The Kalyani Inscriptions erected by King Dhammaceti at Pegu in 1476 A.D. Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing, 1892.
Sao Htun Hmat Win, The initiation of novicehood and the ordination of monkhood in the Burmese Buddhist culture. Rangoon: Department  of Religious Affairs, 1986.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

14 February 2017

Romancing the Tome: Love in Illustrated Persian Manuscripts

For anyone inspired by celebrations of St Valentine’s day, Persian literature has much to offer. Whether it be platonic adoration, romantic affection, or star-crossed disappointment, Persian poetry in particular has something to say about it. With a written tradition stretching over a millennium, much of it still preserved in manuscripts, we explore here a few select examples of epic and romantic compositions from the British Library’s growing collection of digitised Persian manuscripts available online to observe wonderful and alternative responses to love, physical and spiritual.

BL Grenville_xli_f066v_detail
Illustration to a ghazal celebrating love and music from an undated Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ. The painting is unsigned (BL Grenville XLI, f. 66v noc

We begin with a painting (Grenville XLI, f. 66v) illustrating a lyric poem or ghazal (rhyming a-a, b-a, c-a, and so on) by one the genre’s most distinguished exponents, Ḥāfiẓ of Shīrāz (d. circa 1202). Although its tone is initially celebratory, the composition continues by examining different aspects of the lover’s condition, gradually moving toward the melancholic. Couplets 1, 2, and 6 illustrate this shift:

Love's musician possesses an amazing instrument and sound / every air composed strikes a chord.
May the world never empty of lovers’ laments / their sound possesses a delightful harmony.
Showing tears of blood, doctors commented / it is the disease of love, requiring heartrending medication.

The painting is broadly consistent with the ghazal’s narrative arc, showing seated musicians in the foreground facing several figures on a canopied stone platform. The mature male on the left is presumably Ḥāfiẓ addressing his patron, seated on the right, notionally depicted here as a youth absorbed in love’s sorrows.

Although the manuscript is not dated, it is thought to have been transcribed around 1600-1605 in Timurid/Mughal India, and illustrated very soon after. Some of the damage caused to other figures in the same scene is due to the partial obliteration of faces and strategic overpainting (now partially removed), ordered by later owners. Another Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ (Or 14139, f. 47r) refurbished with decorated margins just a few years earlier at the same court isolates the celebratory theme of the first couplet interpreted more straightforwardly as a European musical entertainer playing a fiddle-like instrument while dancing on the spot, and enclosed within an ornamental cartouche.

BL Or_14139_f047r_detail
Ghazal celebrating love and music from a Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ dateable to circa 1470, with illumination added in the margins as part of later refurbishment (BL Or 14139, f. 47r)  noc

Epic poetry and romances play an important role in distilling specific personal traits and emotional states in the characters of the heroes, heroines, and lovers they seek to celebrate, and thereby humanising the ghazal’s expressive and frequently abstract repertoire of conceits and metaphors. The exploits of the archetypal hero, Sasanian ruler Bahrām Gūr (Bahrām V, d. 438), are the subject of several works of epic poetry, notably the Haft Paykar, part of the Khamsah or Quintet of poems by Niẓāmī of Ganjah (d. 599/1203). In one of the finest manuscript treasures at the British Library, the interpretation of a distinctly amorous scene has been the source of some confusion (Or 2265, f. 221r).

BL Or_2265_f221v_detail
Scene from the tale of King Turktāzī and Turktāz, queen of the faeries, as told by the Princess of India in the Haft Paykar from Shāh Ṭahmāsp Ṣafavī's Khamsah of Niẓāmī. Signed by Muḥammad Zamān, dated 1086/1675-76. For more on this painting see Some paintings by the 17th century Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman (BL Or 2265, f. 221v)  noc

The Haft Paykar’s allegorical narrative describes Bahrām Gūr’s encounters with seven princesses over the period of seven evenings. An illustration close to the beginning of the narrative appears at first to depict the first of the seven encounters, specifically, with the Princess of India dressed in black, representing Saturn. A closer reading of the text indicates the painting is an illustration from an edifying tale told by the Indian princess of King Turktāzī entertained by Turktāz, queen of the faeries.

After a lengthy description of Turktāzī awaking in an enchanted garden, the mas̲navī (couplets rhyming a-a, b-b, c-c, and so forth) gradually recounts the impression made be the queen’s magical arrival and unveiling to expose her European (literally Rūmī or Byzantine) features and complexion. Following tender exchanges, the romantically-charged feast of duck (replaced in the painting by pomegranates) and wine takes on a renewed intensity. It is at this point the surge of passion is delicately summarised by the use of familiar musical metaphors establishing the convivial mood:

The musician entered and cup bearers departed / joyousness hardly needed an excuse.
Every imperforate pearl was pierced (in sequence) / every song followed another.
Dance opened the field to form a circle / entering on foot, skipping and gesturing.

BL Or_12208_f123r_detail
Zayd revives the fainting Laylá and Majnūn (Qays) in the wilderness in Laylá va Majnūn from the Khamsah of Niẓāmī written for  the Timurid/Mughal Emperor Akbar I. Ascribed to Farrukh Chelah (BL Or 12208, f. 123r)  noc

In another mas̲navī from the same work, but a different illustrated manuscript (Or 12208, f. 122v), Niẓāmī records with particular sensitivity the doomed relationship of two pre-Islamic lovers, Laylá and Majnūn (originally known as Qays). Qays, distracted with love’s ardour for his beloved since childhood, Laylá, is driven to the wilderness where he is reduced to rags. It is at this point he is given the epithet majnūn, Arabic for ‘possessed by jinns’ or ‘maniac.’ Later, a mutual friend, Zayd, momentarily reunites Majnūn with Laylá in the vicinity of her tents. The scene of their dramatic meeting is evoked in the following selection of couplets:

Majnūn, upon seeing his beloved / glimpsing his soul in a dark veil.
He, alive, though spiritless / she, withholding her life, yet dead.
The two lovers collapsed, senseless / worldly sounds evade their ears.
Bloodthirsty beasts encircle / sharpening their claws in the dead.
The two fallen lovers remained / until midday on the path.

We see in the exquisitely detailed painting by Farrukh Chelah (ascribed in the lower border) that Laylá and Majnūn are being revived by Zayd with a bottle of perfume, just as the text specifies. However, Farrukh Chelah has used this illustration as an opportunity to fill his composition with an array of vegetal, animal, and topographical features that go beyond the text, to make a visually stimulating whole.

Returning to the ghazal genre, a perennial concern to literary critics is the degree to which poets and their audiences, including later illustrators of their works, interpret meaning. Insofar as the Persian language is essentially gender neutral, that is, you cannot automatically infer from a text whether the subject is male or female in the absence of a gendered attribute, poets have in the past been able to encode into their compositions both heterosexual and homosexual references. Such constructive ambiguity, to borrow a recent term, has in turn been exploited by illustrators to respond to the demands of their patrons, in determining the male or female gender of the beloved as described.

BL IO_Islamic_843_f322r_detail
An older man clasps the hand of a departing adolescent boy, based on a ghazal from the Kullīyāt of Saʿdī, dated 1624 (BL IO Islamic 843, f. 322r)  noc

In a painting from a lavishly illustrated copy of the Kullīyāt or compendium of collected works by Saʿdī (d. 690/1291), dated 1624 and made in Safavid Shīrāz, the poet’s place of birth (IO Islamic 843, f. 322r), we witness the interplay between words and the painted image. The scene shows men seated around a pool, several of them with books in hand, indicating a genial poetic gathering. The bearded man seated in a recess clasps the hand of an adolescent boy about to depart. The relevant couplet illustrated here does not, however, mention either the gathering of men, the reading of poetry, or the detention of a boy specifically, except for the daring khvājah, who is in this context a mature man. It is evident from the range of certain visual interpretations of gender in illustrated manuscripts of poetry that patrons and readers generally approached such nuanced subjects with latitude.


Sâqib Bâburî

Curator, Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project
 ccownwork