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

26 November 2014

Burmese scenes from the Life of the Buddha

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Three richly illustrated Burmese manuscripts in the British Library on ‘The life of the Buddha’ have recently been digitised. In line with the conventions of Burmese illustrated parabaik or folding books, chronologically consecutive events are often presented side-by-side within the same frames.

The prince Siddhartha, son of King Suddhodana, was born in Lumbini Garden, which lay in the foot hills of the Himavanta, on Friday, the full moon day of the month Kason (May), around the year 563 BC. Eight of the king’s Brahmins (wise men) chose the name Siddhartha for the baby, which means ‘one whose purpose has been achieved’. Before the conception of the prince, his mother Queen Mahamaya dreamt that a white elephant holding a white lotus flower in its trunk entered her womb through her right side. This was interpreted by the Brahmins that the child would become the sovereign of the whole universe, or the Enlightened Buddha.

In the Palace: in the centre, Prince Siddhartha is depicted on the throne in his palace, being entertained by court musicians, with his wife Yasodharā on the smaller throne to the left.  On the right, Prince Siddhartha, who is riding in his gilded carriage, points to the figure of a saffron-robed monk – the last of the four signs encountered by the Prince. British Library, Or.14197, ff.1-3.  noc

King Suddhodana tried to prevent his son from coming into contact with any religious or spiritual path in order to steer him towards becoming the next king of the Shakyas. When Siddhartha reached the age of sixteen, he married his cousin Princess Yasodharā. In his late twenties, as he was setting out for the royal garden, Prince Siddhartha encountered the ‘four signs’: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic. Through them he realised that the vanity of youth, as well as one’s health, and even life, may end at any time, and the only way out of this suffering world of samsara was through finding and following the right spiritual path. At the age of twenty nine, Yasodharā gave birth to a son, Rahula. On hearing the news, Siddhartha began thinking that the little son would hinder his intentions. He ordered his minister Channa to saddle his horse Kanthaka, then, leaving all behind, he set out in search of Truth and Peace.

The Great Departure: shown above is the famous renunciation of Prince Siddhartha. On the left, he takes a last look at his sleeping wife and newborn son. Then he rides out of the palace, while the gods muffle the horse’s hooves with their hands so that the palace and city will not be awakened.  British Library, Or.4762, ff. 3-5.  noc

At the River Anomā: Prince Siddhartha reaches the River Anomā and cuts off his long topknot of hair and casts it into the air, where it is caught by Sakka, king of the gods, who enshrines it in Tavatimsa heaven. British Library, Or.4762, ff. 9-10.  noc

Prince Siddhartha becomes a monk, British Library, Or.4762, ff. 11-13.  noc

Prince Siddhartha instructs his charioteer to return to the palace with his horse Kanthaka, and give news of him to his family. But Kanthaka refuses to go back without his master, and dies of grief. The prince is presented by the gods with the requisites of a monk and, robed as a monk and carrying his alms bowl, begins his life as wandering ascetic. After the king of Magada heard of him wandering and accepting offerings of food from his people, he revered the Bodhisatta and offered him his Kingdom of Rajagaha.  Bodhisatta refused, saying that he had severed all ties because he sought deliverance and wanted to seek Enlightenment.

After six years of hardship, working to find the right spiritual path and practising on his own to seek enlightenment, Prince Siddhartha reached his goal of enlightenment when he was thirty five.

The mango tree miracle: the Buddha, on being presented with a ripe mango, instructs that its stone be planted and watered, whereupon a huge mango tree springs up covered in fruit and flowers. British Library, Or.5757, ff. 9-10.  noc

Preaching in Tavatimsa: in three strides, the Buddha reached Tavatimsa heaven where he preached to his mother and to the gods for three months, before descending to earth by a triple stairway of gold, silver and jewels, with gods and Brahmas in attendance. British Library, Or.5757, ff. 17-18.  noc

The Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching Dhamma (the path of righteousness).  His teaching was quite practical, as he never taught what he himself had not seen and known.  In his eightieth year when he was in Kusinara, he had a severe attack of dysentery. Buddha consoled Ananda who was weeping, and then called his disciples together and addressed them to work on their salvation with diligence. Then Buddha entered Paranirvana, from which there is no return.   

The three ‘Life of the Buddha’ parabaik which have recently been digitised are Or.14197, Or.4762 and Or.5757.  Shown above are scenes from Or.14197 of Prince Siddhartha seeing the last of the four signs, an ascetic; the announcement of the birth of his son Rahula; and Prince Siddhartha’s departure from the palace. From Or.4762 are scenes of the story of the Buddha’s life, from his departure from his royal position, and his life as a wandering ascetic before his enlightenment. Or.5757 is an illustrated account of the Buddha’s life containing twenty scenes including the performing of miracles and spending the rainy season or Buddhist Lent at various places.

Further reading:

Patricia M. Herbert. The life of Buddha. British Library, 1993. (The illustrations in this book are from two other Burmese manuscripts in the British Library,  Or.14297 and Or.14298, which have not yet been digitised.)

San San May, Curator for Burmese


20 November 2014

The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts (1): Central Thailand

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Palm leaves have been a popular writing support in South and Southeast Asia for about two thousand years. In Thailand, palm leaf manuscripts were produced mostly for religious, literary and historical texts, but also for works relating to astronomy and astrology, law, history, and traditional and Buddhist medicine.

Palmleaf1 Or5107
A royal court version of the Samantapāsādika-atthakathā-yojanā, British Library, Or 5107.  noc

Both the palmyra and talipot palms were used for the production of manuscripts in Thailand. The palm leaves, which were first boiled and then dried and sometimes smoked or baked in a kiln before being written on, are robust and can last for as long as 600 years even in the humid, tropical climate of South and Southeast Asia. Each leaf contains between 3 to 5 lines of writing, but occasionally we also find miniature illustrations or gilt ornaments decorating the text. In central Thailand, the text was mostly written either in Thai or in Khom script, which is a variant of Khmer script used in Cambodia. The writing was usually incised with a hard wood or metal stylus, after which soot or lampblack mixed with oil was wiped onto the leaves and then wiped off again, leaving the black pigment only in the incisions. In rare cases, black ink was used to write the text on to the palm leaves with a bamboo pen or a brush.

A bundle of leaves, called phūk in Thai, was usually fastened together with two cotton cords, which were threaded through two holes pierced through the leaves of the entire manuscript. Title indicators made from wood, bamboo or ivory, with the title or a very brief description of the contents of the manuscript, were sometimes tied to a palm-leaf manuscript in order to identify the text(s) contained within.

Valuable manuscripts or important Buddhist works were protected from physical damage with wooden boards, which could be beautifully carved, gilded, lacquered, or decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay. Sometimes, palm leaf manuscripts were wrapped in cotton or silk cloth, or were kept in custom-made gilt and lacquered wooden cases to protect them from damage by rodents, insects or water.

Shown at the top of this page is a manuscript consisting of fifteen bundles of palm leaves that contains part of a commentary on the Vinaya-pitaka. The manuscript is in Pali language, but written in Khom (Khmer) script, and dates back to the nineteenth century, between 1851 and 1868 A.D. Each section of this important Buddhist work has magnificent title leaves with gilt and black lacquer decorations showing celestial figures (devata) and flowery patterns.

Palmleaf2 Or 5701 detail
Detail of the front leaf of the third bundle of British Library, Or 5107.  noc

The wooden covers of this manuscript are lacquered black, with patterns of leaves and flowers in mother-of-pearl inlay. The manuscript is stored in a red silk and cotton wrapper of Indian origin with a gold thread pattern, made to order for the Thai royal court. This manuscript is of the same high standard as manuscripts given to Wat Chetuphon in Bangkok by King Mongkut (Rama IV).

Palmleaf3 Or_16753_f001r
Idyllic scenes from the heavenly Himavanta forest to accompany extracts from the Sutta-pitaka, painted on palm leaf. British Library, Or 16753.  noc

This fragmented manuscript shown above dates back to the early nineteenth century. The Pāli text is written with black ink in Khom (Khmer) script which was used in central Thailand mainly for Buddhist texts in Pali or in Thai language. Painted illustrations on palm leaves are very rare. Their production required special skills and experiences which only painters working for the royal court were able to acquire, hence the outstanding quality of these miniature-sized paintings.

Palmleaf4 coverOR_12524_fblefr
Covers belonging to a Paññāsa Jātaka manuscript, British Library, Or 12524. The wooden covers are decorated with black lacquer and gilt plant ornaments.  noc

Extra-canonical birth tales of the Buddha, known as Paññāsa Jātaka are popular all over mainland Southeast Asia.  This 19th century manuscript consists of 469 palm leaves with gilt edges, in ten bundles. The text is written in Khom (Khmer) script.

Palmleaf5 OR_12524_f001v
Detail of the second leaf of the first bundle of British Library, Or 12524, showing a heavenly crown.  noc

The manuscript has gilded front and back leaves for every bundle. Each leaf following a front leaf has two oval illustrations; one on the left showing a heavenly vihāra, and one on the right showing a heavenly crown in between two parasols.

Palmleaf6 Rylands
An ivory title indicator with a hand-woven title band for a Buddhist palm leaf manuscript containing an extract from the Patimokkha, the basic code of monastic discipline. John Rylands Library (Manchester), Pali MS 82.

This title indicator from the mid-nineteenth century is inscribed in Khom (Khmer) script, giving the title and number of palm-leaf bundles contained in the manuscript. It has a carved flowery design and a hole at one end to attach it to a rope that is wrapped around the manuscript. To the manuscript also belongs a piece of silk and cotton cloth similar to the one shown above in British Library Or 5107. The title band contains the same information as the ivory indicator. It has some similarities with Burmese sazigyo or woven title bands, but it is much shorter and attached to the same rope as the title indicator.

Title indicators and bands were important means of identifying manuscripts when these were stored together in huge wooden cabinets, often lavishly decorated with black or red lacquer, gilt, mother-of-pearl inlay or mirror glass inlay.

A wooden case from the 19th century with gilt and lacquer relief decorations showing heavenly deva figures (see detail below) and floral designs. The case was custom-made for one Buddhist palm-leaf manuscript, British Library Or.16820/B.  noc

Detail from the wooden case above, showing a guardian figure or deva on a flowery background made from metal wire, lacquer and very thin gold leaf. The metal wire circles used to be decorated with mirror glass inlay which has been lost. British Library Or.16820/B.  noc

There are three types of traditional manuscript storage caskets in Central Thailand: the single manuscript case, the chest and the cabinet. All three are usually made from wood, often beautifully carved or decorated with lacquer and gilt, or sometimes with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay. Cases for single manuscripts were specially made for valuable Buddhist works, such as manuscripts sponsored by members of the royal family or manuscripts that were produced for a special occasion like a monk’s ordination.

Further reading

Guy, John. Palm-leaf and paper, illustrated manuscripts of India and Southeast Asia. With an essay by O.P. Agrawal. Melbourne : National Gallery of Victoria, 1982

Kō̜ngkǣo Wīrapračhak. Khamphī bai lān chabap lūang nai samai Rattanakōsin. Bangkok: Krom Sinlapākō'n, 2527 [1987]

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


17 November 2014

Digital Hebrew treasures from the British Library collections

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In an earlier communication we informed our readers about a far-reaching 3-year project funded by the Polonsky Foundation, which aims to digitise 1250 Hebrew manuscripts held at the British Library, making them available to a global audience (Opening up the Hebrew collection).
The first 45 Hebrew manuscripts that went live on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site last April (45 Hebrew manuscripts go digital) included chiefly Hebrew Bibles, such as the supremely significant London Codex dating from c. 9th century (Or 4445), and the elegant Golden Haggadah a medieval Passover liturgy sumptuously illuminated in Catalonia in the 14th century (Add MS 27210).

Detail of a miniature of the second plague, of frogs from the 'Golden Haggadah', Spain, 2nd quarter of the 14th century (British Library Add Ms 27210, f 12v)

Our devoted followers will be pleased to learn that our recent upload broadens the scope for discovery and research even further with over 300 Hebrew  manuscripts now online. The manuscripts included in the latest ingest present a wider diversity of subjects, thus, apart from Bibles and biblical commentaries, one will find liturgies, manuscripts of the Talmud (large corpus of Jewish law and tradition; includes the Mishnah and the Gemara), Talmudic commentaries, midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew scriptural text) and halakhah (the legal component of Talmudic literature).

There is additionally a greater variation of languages. Though a fair number were written in Hebrew, languages such as Aramaic, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters) are well represented. A good example of a Judeo-Arabic manuscript is Or 2220, a commentary on the Talmudic order Mo’ed (Festivals) by the illustrious Jewish sage Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) which was penned in the 15th century in Yemen. Noteworthy too are the handwriting styles employed in these handwritten books, with square, semi-cursive and cursive Hebrew scripts peculiar to the geographic areas the scribes originated from. Add MS 26992, Tikune ha-Ri”f, a legal work by Abraham ben Shabbatai Del Vechio (d. 1654) written apparently during his lifetime, provides a fine example of an Italian cursive type of Hebrew writing. A Sephardi semi-cursive Hebrew hand can be identified in Harley MS 5719, a 15th century manuscript copy of the Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Law), the legal code Maimonides composed between 1068 and 1078 while living in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt. Or 2220 mentioned earlier provides a good specimen of a semi-cursive Yemenite hand.

Among the uploaded manuscripts there are significant Karaite biblical commentaries and Karaite works dealing with religious legal matters that will form the subject of a future blog. For a full list of the manuscripts that are now online, please follow this link (Hebrew digitised mss_November 2014).

The present upload features a considerable number of decorated and illuminated pieces representing all the schools of Hebrew manuscript painting that thrived in Europe between the 13th and 15th centuries. A beautiful two-volume Bible with subtly coloured illuminations is a telling example of Hebrew manuscript art that developed in Italy in the last quarter of the 13th century.
Menorah (Temple Candelabrum) flanked by foliate scrolls inhabited by animals and hybrids. Italy (Rome or Bologna?)  (British Library Harley MS 5710, f.136r)

A splendid example of the art that developed particularly in Southern Germany in the Lake Constance area during the 14th century is found in the Tripartite Mahzor, a festival prayer book for Shavu’ot (Festival of Weeks) and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). This is in fact the second volume of a three-volume manuscript. Volumes one and three are kept respectively in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest (Kaufmann Collection MS A384) and in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Michael 619).

Historiated word panel depicting Moses, at left, receiving the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai, with Aron and the Israelites standing in prayer. Trumpets and rams’ horns pierce through the clouds, marking the occasion. The gilded word Adon in the centre of the panel opens the liturgical poem ‘The Lord has taken care of me’ which is recited during Shavu’ot, a festival celebrating the giving of the Torah to the Israelites. Germany, c.1322 (British Library Add MS 22413, f. 3r)

Decorated word panel showing a man with a pitcher and a cup at the opening of a liturgical poem. Germany, c. 1322. (British Library Add MS 22413, f. 148r)

An additional specimen from the German school of Hebrew illumination is the beautifully executed Coburg Pentateuch which was produced c. 1396. Beside the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) it comprises the Five Scrolls, Haftarot (weekly readings from the Prophets) and grammatical treatises. The text of the Pentateuch was penned in an Ashkenazi square script by a master scribe named Simhah Levi, while the vocalization was done by Samuel bar Abraham of Molerstadt. The other textual parts in the codex were penned and vocalised by other scribes.

King Solomon, famed for his justice and wisdom is depicted seating on a throne shaped like the roof of a building. At his feet there are several animals, most likely hinting at his ability to converse with the animal kingdom. Coburg, Germany, c. 1396 (British Library Add MS 19776, f. 54v)

A magnificently illuminated codex crafted in France in the 13th century is the North French Hebrew Miscellany. It was written by Benjamin the Scribe, whose name appears four times in the manuscript. The absence of a colophon has led scholars to assume that the scribe wrote the manuscript for his personal use. This was common practice among medieval educated Jews who often copied important Hebrew texts for their own libraries. There are eighty-four different groups of texts in this codex including dozens of poems, the liturgy of the entire year, calendars, and the earliest complete Hebrew version of Tobit. According to scholarly research the 49 full-page miniatures depicting biblical characters and narratives were executed by Christian artists attached to three major contemporary Parisian ateliers.

David and Goliath. France, 1278-1298. (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 523v)

Aaron the Priest pouring oil in the Candelabrum. France, 1278-1298 (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 114r)

From the Portuguese school of Hebrew manuscript painting comes the Lisbon Bible, a three volume manuscript which was copied by Samuel ben Samuel Ibn Musa for Joseph ben Judah called Elhakim in 1482. The finely painted illuminations enhanced by gold leaf were executed by a team of skilled craftsmen in a Lisbon workshop which was active for the three decades preceding the expulsion of the Portuguese Jewry in 1497. The manuscript was sold to the British Museum in 1882, but nothing is known about its location and owners after 1482 until the year it was purchased by the British Museum.  
Beginning of the Book of Genesis with foliate motifs and Masoretic notation outlined in micrography. Lisbon, 1482 (British Library Or 2626, f. 23v)

The uploading process is on-going and by the end of this month users and researchers everywhere will be able to access digitally 400 out of the 1250 manuscripts included in the project. Please watch this space for details of the next batch of Hebrew handwritten books due to go live in the next few weeks!

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies