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

14 April 2014

Sermons in the Malay world

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I recently wrote about how the Indonesian and Malay manuscript collections digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme are changing our perceptions of the written landscape of maritime Southeast Asia.  Today I would like to focus on one genre of Islamic manuscripts from the Malay world previously all but unrepresented in any British collection. These are manuscripts containing khutbah, or sermons, written in Arabic with occasional elements in Malay, designed to be read at the Friday congregational prayer or on special occasions such as marriages or the two great feasts of Islam: Id al-Adha, the feast of the Sacrifice, and Id al-Fitr, at the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan. The British Library holds just one khutbah manuscript from Southeast Asia, acquired in 1990 (Or.15924).  It is written in scroll form, with rather garish illuminated frames and a cloth headpiece, and is stored in a bamboo container.  The presence of a very similar example in the Mataram Museum suggests a Lombok provenance. 

Or.15924, Lombok scroll
Sermon in scroll form, with illuminated frames, probably from Lombok, ca.19th c.  British Library, Or. 15924.  noc

In early Islamic states, the mention of a ruler’s name in the sermon was one of the two prerogatives of a Muslim sovereign (the other being the right to mint coins).  Elizabeth Lambourn (2008 & 2011) has recently highlighted how the offer to cite a ruler’s name in the Friday sermon could be used as a bargaining tool in negotiations between the great Islamic empires and the coastal communities that fringed the Indian Ocean: khutbah were traded for cannon.  The research project Islam, Trade and Politics across the Indian Ocean, investigating Ottoman links with Southeast Asia, has found evidence that the citation of the Ottoman sultan’s name in sermons was used by Malay rulers in the late 19th century to support claims to Ottoman overlordship and thence entitlement to protection against western colonial powers. 

The first Islamic sermons from Southeast Asia to be published originate from Sulu in the southern Philippines.  One is a Friday sermon and the other a sermon for the feast of Ramadan, copied in 1903 and citing the name of Sultan Muhammad ‘Pudhalun’ (Fadl) (r.1824-1862), son of the late Muhammad Jamalul Kiram (r.1823-1842), and asking for blessings on former sultans of Sulu. As seen from photographs published in 1905 by the Lebanese-American scholar Najib Saleeby (1973: 101-107, Plates XI-XVI), each sermon was written in book form with the first two pages set in beautiful decorative frames.

It was only with the arrival in the British Library of digitised collections of Indonesian manuscripts through the Endangered Archives Programme that large numbers of khutbah manuscripts from Southeast Asia are at last available for study.  Project EAP329: Digitising private collections of Acehnese manuscripts located in Pidie and Aceh Besar regencies, led by Dr Fakhriati M. Thahir, includes three volumes of khutbah from Aceh. 


Sermon for Ramadhan, from an illuminated compilation of khutbah texts. Unusually (but not unprecedentedly) for a MS from Aceh, this has some headings in Javanese. EAP329/1/62.

More significant, though, is project EAP276: Documentation and preservation of Ambon manuscripts, led by Prof. Titik Pudjiastuti of Universitas Indonesia, which digitised 12 private collections of 182 mostly Islamic manuscripts in Ambon and the neighbouring island of Haruku in the Moluccas, of which no fewer than 45 are sermons. Intriguingly, just like the Lombok sermon in the BL and in contrast to the Aceh sermons, all are scrolls, which is actually a very unusual format for manuscripts in the Malay world. Said to date from the 18th to the 20th centuries, many are relatively recent, with one sermon dated 2002.  Yet of the earlier sermons, it is notable that some cite the names of sultans of Ternate dating from the 17th back to the late 14th centuries, suggesting the preservation of a much older tradition, and one which will repay further study.  Reproduced below is a selection of khutbah manuscripts from Ambon.


Map of Ambon on the left-hand page, with the Banda islands on the right-hand page. Livro do Estado da India Oriental, by Pedro Barreto de Resende, 1646.  British Library, Sloane MS 197, ff.397v-398r.   noc


Sermon for Id al-Fitr, with pink headcloth and bamboo case, written by Rahman Ali Salampessy, late 20th c.  At the beginning, the writer has used small circles to indicate the number of times the takbir (the phrase Allah Akbar, ‘God is greatest’) should be repeated at the start of the sermon: seven times in the second line, and five times in the third line.  EAP276/8/5.

Friday sermon headed by the Indonesian state arms, also by Rahman Ali Salampessy, dated 28 August 1990. EAP276/8/4.

Colophon of a sermon on dogs written by Imam Alibi in 2002 (yang menulis ini khutba Imam Alibi Wa'ila 'alim bangsa Ripamuli pada tahun 2002 pada bulan Rabiulawal pada binatang anjing pelaku tiga naskah pada tahun jim akhir), from the Basri Ripamole Collection.  EAP276/4/1.

Sermon in Arabic with interlinear translation in Malay, 19th c., from the collection of Husain Hatuwe. EAP276/7/61.

Sermon from Ambon, citing the grandiose titles of the ruler and the names of his forebears, all sultans of Ternate (the reign dates are taken from The Royal Ark by Christopher Buyers):
ibn al-Sultan Ali Manzar Syah (this may refer to Sultan Muzafar, who ruled from 1607-1627, or to his son Sultan Mandar Syah, r.1648-1675)
ibn al-Sultan Saiduddin Syah (r.1583-1606)
ibn al-Sultan Babullah Zat Syah (r.1570-1583)
ibn al-Sultan Khair Jamil Syah (r.1535-1570)
ibn al-Sultan Bayan Sirrullah (r.1500-1522)
ibn Zainal Abidin Syah al-marhum (r.1486-1500)
ibn al-Sultan Amir al-Mu’minin Iskandar Zulkarnain Zat Syah
From the collection of Sarajudin Hatuina, Ambon.  EAP276/11/15

Sermon for Id al-Fitr on 1 Muharam, citing a similar chain of Ternate sultans, from the collection of Husain Hatuwe, Ambon. EAP276/7/38.

Further reading

Christopher Buyers, 'Ternate',  The Royal Ark.

Elizabeth Lambourn. ‘India from Aden – Khutba and Muslim Urban Networks in Late Thirteenth-Century India’, in Secondary Cities and Urban Networking in the Indian Ocean Realm c. 1000-1800, ed. Kenneth Hall. Lanham: Lexington, 2008, pp. 55-97.

Elizabeth Lambourn, 'Khutba and Muslim networks in the Indian Ocean (Part II) - Timurid and Ottoman engagements', in The growth of non-Western cities: primary and secondary urban networking, c. 900-1900, ed. Kenneth R. Hall.  Lanham: Lexington, 2011, pp. 127-154.

Najeeb M. Saleeby. Studies in Moro history, law and religion. Beirut: United Publishers, 1973. [Facsimile reprint of the 1905 ed.]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

10 April 2014

45 Hebrew manuscripts go digital

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We previously alerted our readers to a landmark digitisation project aimed at opening up the British Library’s invaluable repository of Hebrew manuscripts (Opening up the Hebrew Manuscript Collection). Over a three-year period 1250 objects from this outstanding collection, comprising well over 3000 manuscripts, would be made freely available online. 

The project has been made possible by a £1.2 million lead grant from the Polonsky Foundation. This significant award has provided a springboard for attracting additional funding for this ground-breaking initiative.

Dr Leonard Polonsky, Chairman of the Polonsky Foundation said,

I am delighted that these important and beautiful treasures have been made more widely available for the public to enjoy. I look forward to seeing the entire collection online and freely accessible in the future.

The Golden Haggadah. Miriam and her maidens rejoicing (top right); distribution of haroset ('sweet meats') by the master of the house (top left); preparations for Passover (lower right and left)
BL MS Add. 27210, f. 15r

We are very pleased to announce the launch of the first 45 Hebrew manuscripts on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.  The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh  features prominently within this small corpus of handwritten books.  Tanakh is an acronym based on the first letters of each of the sections that make up the Hebrew Bible, namely Torah (Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses), Neviyim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).  The Torah is considered the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible, because, according to tradition, Moses wrote it at divine dictation.

The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) with masoretic notation.
The London Codex BL MS Or. 4445, f. 57r

Among the released biblical treasures viewable on the Digitised manuscripts site is the London Codex (Or. 4445) one of the oldest surviving Hebrew Bibles.  This manuscript bears great similarities with the Aleppo Codex (930 AD) and the  Leningrad Codex (1008-1010 AD), held respectively in Jerusalem and St. Petersburg.

It  contains the masoretic notation compiled by Aaron Ben Asher, a tenth-century scholar from Tiberias, Palestine.  Ben Asher’s notation is considered to be the most authoritative masoretic version extant.  The Masorah is a body of rules of pronunciation, spelling, vocalization and intonation of the scriptural text, intended to preserve it and transmit it correctly.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), one of the earliest codes of religious and moral precepts. The London Codex BL MS Or. 4445, f. 61v

The London Codex was probably copied in Egypt or Palestine around the 10th century. The more recent paper additions with Yemenite square script are from the 16th century. As its colophon is missing, the exact date and place of its creation are unknown. The scriptural text was penned in a neat oriental square script in three columns per page.  The masoretic notation was copied above, beneath and in between the textual columns.  The scribe’s name Nissi ben Daniel, who apparently was also the punctuator, is embedded in the masoretic rubrics on folios 40r, 113v, 139r.  The manuscript was acquired by the British Museum in 1891 from a private collector.

Page with masoretic notation containing Nissi ben Daniel’s  name. The London Codex BL MS Or. 4445, f. 113v

With the Jewish Passover approaching, we are also thrilled to launch digitally the Golden Haggadah (Add. 27210), one of the finest surviving Haggdah manuscripts from medieval Spain and the British Library’s most famous Hebraic treasure.   Haggadah, which literally means ‘telling’, is the service book for Passover Eve recounting the story of the Israelites’ miraculous  liberation from slavery in Egypt. Created in Catalonia, probably in or near Barcelona around 1320 AD, this elegant manuscript written and illuminated on vellum, consists of three distinct parts: a series of small illustrations (miniatures) depicting biblical scenes, the Haggadah text, and religious poems for the Passover festival.

Moses (holding a staff)  leads the Israelites out of Egypt (top left); Pharaoh’s army in pursuit (lower right);  crossing of the Red Sea (lower left). The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 14v

The sumptuous illuminations found in the preliminary section of the manuscript (fourteen full pages of miniatures) are set against gold-tooled backgrounds, and have earned the manuscript its name.  They were executed by two unnamed artists in the Gothic style common in Europe at the time.  Gothic style decorations also embellish the Hebrew text in the second part of the manuscript and include foliage scrollwork, illuminated words, zoomorphic letters and text illustrations of significant Passover symbols.

Zoomorphic lettering with dogs and rabbits spelling ve-yotsiany (and we were taken out [of Egypt]…). The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 36v

The manuscript's earliest known owner was Joav Gallico, Rabbi in Mantua in 1602 and formerly a judge in Governolo.  The Golden Haggadah was a wedding gift to Eliah Rava who married Gallico’s daughter, Rosa, in Carpi, on 25th October 1602, as recorded on the title page added on a blank page in the manuscript.

The Matsah (unleavened bread), one of the obligatory foods consumed during the Passover festival. The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 44v

The last private owner of this gem was Joseph (Giuseppe) Almanzi (1801-1860), an Italian-Jewish poet, born in Padua, who was an avid collector of rare books and manuscripts.  We do not know when the Golden Haggadah entered  Almanzi’s manuscript collection, which was bought in 1864 by the British Museum, and now belongs to the British Library. 

The Maror (bitter herb) which symbolises the hard life endured by the Israelites while in Egyptian bondage. The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 45v


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies

08 April 2014

A conduit of shared values: CSMVS-BL collaboration

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Regular followers of this blog will know through the Mewar Ramayana Digitally Reunited blog post that recently we were delighted to join with Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay (CSMVS Musuem), Mumbai, in announcing the launch of the digitised Mewar Ramayana manuscript. The Ramayana is one of the great epic stories of the world, with a unique universal human appeal. This particular manuscript, commissioned by Maharana Jagat Singh of Mewar in the mid-17th century, is widely regarded as one of the finest, most lavishly-illustrated copies of the epic ever made.

As our first major collaborative project with partners in India, the launch of the digitised Mewar Ramayana marks a significant early milestone in our aim to make parts of our extensive collections relating to South Asia freely available online, for people all around the world to study, admire and enjoy.

It was both to celebrate the launch with CSMVS at a reception on 21 March, and to discuss future collaborations with CSMVS and other partners in India, that a small BL contingent set off for Mumbai: Baroness Tessa Blackstone (Chairman of the Board), Roly Keating (Chief Executive), Marina Chellini (project curator), Jerry Losty (project consultant, see Curator’s perspective: accessing the Mewar Ramayana), Kate Losty (a conservator by training, and as Jerry’s wife, as engaged with the Mewar Ramayana as he), and myself.

CSMVS, Mumbai

Our CSMVS colleagues and friends, in particular Sabyasachi Mukherjee (Director General), Vandana Prapanna (project curator), Roda Ahluwalia (project consultant), Manisha Nene (curator), and Koumudi Malladi (coordinator, DG’s office), had ensured a memorable evening’s programme for the launch! It began with refreshments for some 120 guests under the watchful eye of Jamsetji Tata, whose bust graced the lobby of Coomaraswamy Hall. This felt particularly apt, since it was partly due to the generous support of the Jamsetji Tata Trust that the project could happen.

India02Jamsetji Tata
The statue of Jamsetji Tata fittingly presides over the launch.

Brief speeches by Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Baroness Blackstone, Kumar Iyer (British Deputy High Commissioner) and Roly Keating focussed on the deep historical ties between India and the UK, and the importance of international collaboration in building on these to ensure greater access to cultural treasures. These sentiments were beautifully encapsulated by honoured guest Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udaipur, whose ancestor Rana Bhim Singh first donated the part of the manuscript now held at the British Library to Lt. Col. James Tod, British Political Agent and noted historian, in the early 19th century. Speculating as to his ancestor’s motivations in presenting the folios to Tod, Shriji concluded that the gift was symptomatic of the strong, cultural link between India and Britain, a link further strengthened by the ‘conduit of shared values’ demonstrated by the CSMVS-BL collaboration.

Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the Maharana of Udiapur, addresses a packed Coomaraswamy Hall

The digital Mewar Ramayana was unveiled by Marina Chellini, who talked the audience through the special features of the resource, in the shaping and creating of which she had played such a leading role, whilst Vandana Prapanna provided fascinating insights into the project from the perspective of CSMVS. In the focal point of the evening, art historians Jerry Losty and Roda Ahluwalia delivered illustrated lectures, Jerry Losty concentrating on the immense artistic importance of the Mewar Ramayana, and Roda Ahluwalia exploring its significance in relation to other Ramayanas and to the Rajput manuscript tradition.

A lamp-lighting ceremony to inaugurate The Balakanda of the Mewar Ramayana in the Curator’s Gallery followed. Not to be missed by those fortunate enough to be in Mumbai, this exhibition displays original folios from the manuscript held at CSMVS, cleverly juxtaposing them with an animated digital folio projected on the wall, and the reunited digital resource on a kiosk to one side. Celebrations were brought to a close with a dinner at Bombay Gymkhana, very generously hosted by the Chairman and Director General of CSMVS.

BL Chairman of the Board, Baroness Tessa Blackstone, at the lamp-lighting ceremony

After meetings with Sabyasachi Mukherjee the following morning to discuss exciting plans for the next CSMVS-BL joint endeavour and tours of the museum and conservation studio, the BL contingent went their separate ways. For Baroness Blackstone, Roly Keating and me, ‘work’ had just begun, with a further four days of meetings scheduled with partners in Mumbai and Kolkata. But that’s for another post.

Photo 2
BL Chief Executive Roly Keating and Baroness Tessa Blackstone visiting the CMSVS conservation studio

In the meantime, our sincere thanks go to CSMVS, who in the course of this project have become friends as well as international colleagues. We look forward to many similar successes in the future!

We would also like to thank our funders, the Jamsetji Tata Trust, Sir Gulam Noon, the World Collections Programme, the Friends of the British Library and the British Library Board, without whom the project could not have been achieved.

And finally, we hope that you, our readers - whether via pc, tablet or phone, on the move or in the comfort of your own homes - will continue to study and enjoy this unique resource! You can explore the manuscript by going to or

Leena Mitford

Lead Curator, South Asian Studies