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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

06 July 2015

The Life of the Buddha in Thai manuscript art

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In contrast to Thai mural painting and sculpture, depictions of Gautama Buddha are relatively rare in Thai manuscript art. Numerous Buddhist temples in Thailand are famous for their lavish mural paintings illustrating the milestones in the life of Gautama Buddha, often beginning with his former existence as a Bodhisatta (Buddha-to-be) in Tusita heaven, or with the wedding of his parents, and ending with the distribution of his physical remains.

Although the majority of Thai manuscript paintings are dedicated to Buddhist topics, instead of Gautama Buddha’s life these illustrations often highlight his former incarnations, particularly the last Ten Birth Tales, and the legend of the monk Phra Malai, or other subjects like the Buddhist cosmology, funeral ceremonies and meditation practices. However, there are some remarkable representations of Gautama Buddha in rare Thai manuscripts, and sometimes these can be found in a rather unexpected context.

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The most lavishly painted scene from the Life of the Buddha in the British Library’s Thai, Lao and Cambodian collection is this scene called The Great Departure, contained in a northern Thai (Lanna) Kammavaca manuscript from the 19th century. Prince Siddharta, after having learned about the worldly sufferings and the inevitability of death, decided to abandon his luxurious life and to become an ascetic as a result of his great compassion for human suffering. British Library, Or.14025, ff. 13-14  noc
 
While the manuscript shown above was created for use by Buddhist monks on the occasion of the ordination of novices and new monks, the following book containing a collection of drawings and paintings on European paper may have been copied from one or more older manuscripts to serve as an artist’s manual. It includes numerous drawings from the Ramakien (the Thai version of the Ramayana) as well as a set of 23 ink-and-colour paintings illustrating the Ten Birth Tales and the Life of the Buddha.

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After leaving his family and home, Siddharta arrived at the Anoma river where he took off his clothes and gave them to his servant and charioteer Channa, who took them back to the palace with a message for Siddharta’s relatives. Then he cut off his hair which Sakka (Indra) collected and placed in Tavatimsa heaven. British Library, Or.14859, ff. 202-203  noc

Another rare manuscript of a smaller, almost square folding book format was used by fortune-tellers in southern Thailand. Some men specialising in fortune-telling and divination were former monks and had acquired a good knowledge of the Buddhist doctrine. It comes as no surprise that the small book combines Buddhist topics, like Jatakas and cosmology, with folk legends and indigenous beliefs. Using the text and picture on a randomly chosen page, the fortune-teller would be able to interpret the fate of a person and give advice on how to avoid bad luck. Very often the advice would point towards making merit or following the Buddhist precepts for lay people.

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In the southern Thai dialect this fortune-telling book from the 19th century is called Satra. The illustrations are all rather simple, but highly expressive. The image above shows the scene where Mara, the personification of evil and death, threatens and attacks Siddharta while he was sitting in meditation, touching the ground with his right hand (bhumisparsa or earth-touching mudra). British Library, Or.16482, f. 3  noc

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Another unexpected illustration of the same scene, Siddharta under attack from Mara and his army, can be found in a manuscript from central Thailand containing mantra and designs for protective diagrams (yantra). Mara cannot be seen in this drawing in yellow gamboge ink, but underneath the picture of the meditating Siddharta one can see the earth goddess Nang Thorani exercising her supernatural powers by wringing a great flood out of her long hair, thus sweeping away Mara and his army. British Library, Or.15596, f. 17  noc

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Once Siddharta was free from all disturbances and distractions, he was able to attain Enlightenment on the full moon day of Visakha. By touching the earth he called upon the gods, here represented by Sakka and Brahma, to witness his enlightenment. British Library, Or.16101, fol. 2  noc

A book of Thai characters, which may have been produced on request of a Western traveller in 19th century Siam, contains ink coloured paintings of human figures representing various ethnic groups found in mainland Southeast Asia at the time, and of figures from Thai literature, particularly the Ramakien (Ramayana). Only on the first page there is a scene from the Life of the Buddha.   

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The weeks after his enlightenment the Buddha spent in standing, walking and sitting meditation, thus recollecting his former births and the Four Noble Truths. During the fourth week in seated meditation, devas descended from the heavens to build a jewelled pavilion around him. British Library, Or.14229, f. 1  noc

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This illustration is from a Thai folding book in Khom (Khmer) script from the 19th century that contains a collection of extracts from the Pali canon. The painting shows the Buddha in contemplation while two creatures from the heavenly Himavanta forest kneel by his side, showing their respect. British Library, Or.15246, f. 16  noc

Large illustrations covering one entire or more openings of a folding book like in the picture above are relatively rare. Most frequently we find a set of two smaller paintings touching the right and left edges of folding books with some text between them, as shown below.

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This generously gilded set of paintings in a 19th century manuscript containing the legend of Phra Malai depict a scene of utmost rarity in Thai manuscript art - Gautama Buddha’s death that is mourned by his followers. On the right side we see Kassapa, one of Buddha’s closest disciples, who was travelling with a group of other monks. While resting under a tree, they encountered a man holding a gigantic flower over his head. They enquired about the meaning of this supernatural plant and the man informed them that he found it at the place where the Buddha had passed away and finally reached pari-nibbana. British Library, Or.14956, fol. 2  noc

Further reading

Appleton, Naomi and Sarah Shaw and Toshiya Unebe: Illuminating the Life of the Buddha. An illustrated chanting book from eighteenth-century Siam. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2013
Ginsburg, Henry: Thai art and culture. Historic manuscripts from Western collections. London: British Library, 2000
Tom Chuawiwat: The Life of the Lord Buddha from Thai mural painting. Bangkok: Asia Books (no year)

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

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02 July 2015

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

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As the 'Africa Writes' festival comes to the Library this weekend and we celebrate literature from the continent, we are also thrilled that tickets are now available for our major autumn exhibition, 'West Africa: World, Symbol, Song' which opens on October 16 at our St Pancras site in London. 

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Odwira festival, Asante, Ghana, from Thomas Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London: John Murray, 1819)
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This will be the British Library’s first major exhibition on Africa. It will showcase music and literature – both written and oral – from the region, and demonstrate how West Africans have harnessed the power of words to build societies, drive political movements, sustain religious belief and fight injustice. In doing so it will reference a millennium of history and bring visitors right up to the present.

Throughout, we are telling the story of how word, symbol and song have shaped history, politics and religion in West Africa and beyond. The region has a remarkable number of graphic systems and locally invented scripts, some of recent origin, some centuries or even millennia old. West Africans have also invented numerous other means of long-distance communication. The language of ‘talking drums’ is the most famous, as in this recording of Asante atumpan drums, made by Robert Sutherland Rattray in Ghana in 1921. There are also other sonic systems – ‘talking whistles’, for example – as well as coded objects, such as the ‘aroko’ messages, formed of cowrie shells and seeds, of Nigeria.

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One of the earliest records of the Vai script, invented in Liberia in the first half of the 19th century. 1851 (British Library Add MS 17,817b)
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Then there is the manuscript culture of the region, which owes its origin and development to the adoption of Islam. The manuscripts of Timbuktu, in present-day Mali, are deservedly famous, but it is not as well known that centres of learning and scholarship flourished as far apart as Mauritania and Nigeria. In many of these centres, manuscript libraries survive today.

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Page from an illuminated Qur’an in a style typical of the region of southern Niger, northern Nigeria and Chad, late 18th/early 19th century  (British Library Or 16,751)
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Alongside the rich heritage of writing in West Africa – which is flowering today in new forms – we are emphasising the importance of oral literature, an intensively creative art form expressed across a range of genres. Orature, as it is sometimes called, draws on the resources of the past but is constantly recreated in performance. It has deep musical roots and is as often sung as spoken, most famously by West Africa’s griots (story-tellers and musicians).

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Griots – West African musicians and story-tellers. From Alexander Gordon Laing, Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko, and Soolima countries in western Africa (London: J. Murray, 1825)
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All these threads are brought together as visitors walk through the exhibition. We begin with precolonial West Africa, and go on to the major religions and their various traditions of art, writing and ritual. Moving beyond the region, we look next at the transatlantic slave trade and the role of culture – writing, religion, music, carnival – in resistance. In West Africa, writing and song offered important ways of protesting and reflecting on public life during the colonial era and beyond, and these are the subject of our ‘Speaking Out’ section. The exhibition finishes with ‘Story Now’ – the marvellous and multi-faceted literary flowering of the region from independence to the present.

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This forowa or sheet-brass box will be loaned to the British Library for the exhibition by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. It comes from Ghana and is rich in symbolic content. Ghana, before 1900.  Photograph courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Audio-visual items from the British Library’s collections and elsewhere – music, film, stories and other recordings – have been carefully curated and woven through the story. Manuscripts, books and photographs from our collections are joined by numerous loans, including colourful printed textiles, miniature gold-weight sculptures and modern artworks.

The exhibition has been in preparation for more than four years, and the curators have engaged in extensive external consultation, which has helped to shape the focus, direction and content of the project. We are currently working with an external Advisory Panel, chaired by Dr Gus Casely-Hayford. The curators are Dr Marion Wallace (Lead Curator, African Collections) and Dr Janet Topp Fargion (Lead Curator, World and Traditional Music).

The exhibition runs from 16 October 2015 to 16 February 2016. Booking is open now at www.bl.uk/west-africa. An exciting and diverse programme of events will run alongside the exhibition.


Marion Wallace, African Collections, Asian and African Studies
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29 June 2015

Panji stories in Malay

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Stories of the Javanese culture hero Prince Panji probably date from around the 13th century, and mark the development of a truly Javanese literature no longer overshadowed by the great Indian epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Set around the Javanese kingdoms of Kuripan and Daha, the stories tell of Panji’s search for his beloved, Princess Candra Kirana, and his many adventures, undertaken in various disguises and with a range of different names, before the lovers are reunited. During the Majapahit empire from the 14th to 15th centuries the Panji stories became extremely popular, and the figure of Panji is found engraved on temple reliefs (always wearing a distinctive cap on his head), while the Panji tales came to constitute the repertoire of wayang gedog theatrical performances. The British Library holds eight Javanese manuscripts containing Panji stories including Panji Kuda Waneng Pati (Add. 12319), Serat Panji Kuda Narawongsa (Add.12333), Serat Panji Murdaningkung (Add. 12345), Panji Angreni (MSS Jav 17) and the beautifully illustrated Panji Jaya Kusuma (MSS Jav 68), all described in the catalogue by Ricklefs & Voorhoeve.

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Prince Panji (on the right) hands a letter to his clown-retainers (panakawan) Bancak and Dhoyok, in a Javanese Panji romance, 19th century. British Library, Or. 15026, f.85r (det.)  noc

Panji tales are found not only in the Javanese literary tradition but also in Balinese and Malay, and on the Southeast Asian mainland in Thai, Lao, Khmer and Burmese versions, where the hero-prince is known as Inao (after his main Javanese name, Raden Inu Kartapati). The Panji stories appear to have been translated into Malay at an early date, perhaps in the cosmpolitan port city of Melaka in the 15th century, and influences can be discerned in the Malay texts Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah. Over a hundred different Panji stories in Malay are known, in numerous manuscripts, many originating from the northern peninsular states of Kelantan and Kedah where wayang (shadow puppet) stories were most popular.

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Sketch of Panji, wearing his distinctive rounded cap, found in a Malay manuscript of Hikayat Dewa Mandu, copied in Semarang, 1785. British Library, Add. 12376, f. 219r (det.).

The British Library holds ten Malay manuscripts containing Panji stories or related tales, all of which have now been fully digitised:
MSS Malay C 1, Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati. Under the name Cekel Waneng Pati, Panji undergoes innumerable trials to regain his love Raden Galuh Candra Kirana: he captures the deer with golden antlers, solves riddles, cures Candra Kirana of illness, defeats a black-bearded villain, himself falls ill but is cured by his son Mesa Tandraman who obtains a heavenly flower of blood from a nymph’s bosom, and wins yet more battles before all can finally live happily ever after.
MSS Malay C 2, another copy of Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati, dated 1787.
Or. 11365, possibly another copy of Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati, written on Javanese paper, acquired from Kelantan.
MSS Malay C 3, Hikayat Mesa Tandraman, about the son of Panji, copied in Penang by Ibrahim for Raffles in 1806.
Add. 12380, Syair Mesa Gumitar, about a king of Kuripan, apparently related to the Panji stories.
Add. 12383, Hikayat Carang Kulina.
Add. 12387, Hikayat Mesa Taman Sira Panji Jayeng Pati, written on Javanese paper.
Add. 12391, Hikayat Naya Kusuma, where the hero is named Mesa Susupan Sira Panji Kelana Asmara Pati.
Or. 16446, an unidentified Panji tale, starting with the Maharaja of Jenggala, written on Javanese paper in romanized Malay.
Or. 16447, ff. 89v-91r, a fragment of the Syair Ken Tambuhan, copied in Taiping in 1888.

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Opening pages of Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati. British Library, MSS Malay C 1, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

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Opening pages of the Syair Mesa Gumitar. British Library, Add. 12380, ff. 3v-4r.  noc

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The seduction scene from Syair Ken Tambuhan, whose name, in this manuscript, is always spelt Ken Tabuhan (Ken Tabuhan terlalai dalam seketika / kainnya terlingsir lalu terbuka / pinggangnya bagai taruk angsuka / Inu mencium melakukan suka). British Library, Or. 16447, f. 89v (det.)  noc

The large number of manuscripts still found today testify to the enduring popularity of Panji stories in the Malay world, but the continuing enjoyment of literature rooted in the pre-Islamic era was never uncontroversial, as graphically demonstrated by the earliest of the Malay Panji manuscripts in the British Library. This is a copy of Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati written by a scribe named Da'ut, possibly in the environs of Kedah, and dated 10 Zulhijah 1201 (23 September 1787). Above the text frames on the opening page on the right is an exhortation to readers not to believe the contents of this story, with a similar comment on the left-hand page addressed to listeners (reflecting the fact that traditional Malay tales were not designed to be read silently by an individual, but were recited aloud to an audience). On a later page the threat posed by this ancient Javanese fantasy tale to Muslim faith is made explicit, and thereafter, the top of every single right-hand page of this manuscript of 151 folios bears the warning: ‘don’t believe this!’ (jangan beriman akan). 

In early 17th-century Aceh, the stern theologian Nuruddin al-Raniri decreed that copies of the Hindu-infused romance Hikayat Inderaputera should be banished for use in the lavatory, and, judging the writings of Shaykh Shamsuddin al-Sumatrani heretical, consigned his books to the flames.  The late 18th-century Malay scribe Da'ut has taken a different and very pragmatic approach, of boldly and visibly plastering his book with spiritual health warnings while leaving the text itself intact, so that those prepared to brave the morally hazardous terrain filled with deities, ogres, cross-dressing princesses and magic potions might venture forth at their own risk.

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Opening pages of Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati, prefaced at the top with a strict message to readers and listeners: 'Will all readers please make sure not to take this book to heart because it's really just a pack of lies, and will you also please stress to your listeners on each page that they should not believe it' (Maka hendaklah tuan yang membaca surat ini jangan menaruh iman di dalam hati karena semata sekaliannya itu dusta belaka dan lagi / tuan2 kata akan pada sekalian orang yang menengar surat ini pada tiap2 halai tekan pada mereka itu, jangan beriman akan). British Library, MSS Malay C 2, ff. 1v-2r noc

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One full page of the manuscript of Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati is dedicated to a warning about its potential impact on faith: 'Never fail to keep in mind Allah and His Prophet when you read this book; these Javanese stories are a tissue of fantasies, composed simply for amusement by writers whose skills were different from those of people now, and so these tales of olden times just read like nonsense today' (Jangan sekali-sekali lupa akan Allah dan rasulNya pada tatkala membaca surat ini perkataan surat Jawa ini terlalu amat dusta sekali oleh dicandakan orang yang menyurat yang bijaksana orang tetapi bukannya orang pada masa ini dahulu punya perbuatan ini maka orang sekarang ini sedikit2 dicandanya pulak jadilah perpanjanglah kata). British Library, MSS Malay C 2, f. 5r (det.)   noc

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At the top of every single right-hand page, there is an appeal to readers not to believe the contents: jangan beriman akan. British Library, MSS Malay C 2, f. 8v (det.)   noc

Further reading:
V.I. Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views.  Leiden: KITLV, 2004, pp. 156-175.
Lydia Kieven, Following the Cap-figure in Majapahit temple reliefs: a new look at the religious function of East Javanese temples, 14th and 15th centuries. Leiden: Brill, 2013.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve† and Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.
R.O. Winstedt, A history of classical Malay literature.  Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1977; summary of Hikayat Cekel Waneng Pati on pp. 2231-250.

Pameran naskah cerita Panji: Exhibition of Panji manuscripts in Javanese, Balinese and Malay at the National Library of Indonesia, October 2014

Related blog posts: Soother of sorrows or seducer of morals? The Malay Hikayat Inderaputera

With thanks to Lydia Kieven for advice, and for identifying the sketch of Panji above.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia   ccownwork