Asian and African studies blog

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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

23 January 2015

The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts (2): Northern Thai, Lao and Shan traditions

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Historically there has been a close cultural and linguistic relationship between the Tai peoples in Southeast Asia (Northern Thai/Lanna, Lao, Phu Thai, Phuan, Shan, Tai Khoen and Tai Lue, to mention some of the larger groups). Tai groups that have embraced Buddhism have also adopted the tradition of making palm leaf manuscripts. The reputation of the famous Pali school of Chiang Mai, the capital of the former kingdom of Lanna, may have contributed significantly to the spread not only of Buddhism in the area, but also of the making of palm leaf manuscripts and the use of the Tham script. Palm leaf manuscripts clearly play an important role especially for the preservation of Buddhist texts and commentaries, but were also used to record historical accounts and traditional knowledge relating to social values, customary laws, herbal medicine and traditional healing practices, astrology, divination and horoscopes, non-Buddhist rituals and ceremonies, and literary texts (folklore).

Lao sutras Or16734Buddhist manuscript in Tham script from Lanna or Laos with black lacquered covers and gilt floral decorations, 19th century. British Library, Or.16734.  noc

Whereas Buddhist texts are often in Pali language and/or in Dhamma (Tham) script, other treatises are usually written in Tai languages like Lao, Northern Thai, Tai Khoen, Tai Lue, or Shan. Local scripts like Lik Tai, Tham Lao, Tham Lanna, and Lao buhan were used.

For the production of a palm leaf manuscript, very large fan-shaped leaves from a lān palm (corypha) were cut into a long rectangular shape, soaked in a herbal mixture, then dried or  baked in a kiln, and finally pressed. These fan palm trees were the preferred type in the Northern Thai/Lanna, Lao and Shan manuscript traditions, and are still commonly planted as ornamental trees in temple grounds. The text was usually inscribed with a sharp wooden or metal stylus, then wiped over with a mixture of resin and/or oil and carbon soot to make the writing more visible.

Most of the extant palm leaf manuscripts from the Tai traditions were produced during the 18th and 19th centuries, but some date back to the early 16th century (see DLLM). The introduction of modern printing methods in mainland Southeast Asia resulted in a rapid decline of palm leaf manuscript production during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the Shan tradition, palm leaf manuscripts were largely replaced by bound or folded paper books (Terwiel 2003, p. 26). However, in some places palm leaf manuscripts are still being produced today, or their production has been revived due to the fact that the sponsoring and donation of manuscripts to temples is still regarded as an important meritorious act in the Buddhist context.

Precious manuscripts or palm leaves containing important texts were covered with two wooden or bamboo boards, which were sometimes left blank, but often they were beautifully carved or decorated. Such covers could be lacquered in red or black, and decorated with gold leaf, mirror glass, mother-of-pearl inlay or even with crystals or precious stones.

Covers from a Shan Buddhist manuscript. The wooden covers are decorated with raised gilt lacquer forming flower ornaments, which were inlaid with mirror glass.19th century. British Library, Or.16114. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.  noc

Black or red lacquer was a popular material to apply on wooden manuscript covers as it provided good protection against damage by water and humidity. At the same time, the shiny black and bright purple of the lacquer were ideal background colours on which gold leaf or gold paint could be applied.

Manuscript in Tham script from Lanna or Laos with red lacquered and gilt bamboo covers, 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or.16790.  noc

Bamboo strips cut to match the size of the palm leaves were popular covers for manuscripts in Lanna, Laos and among the Shan. The manuscript covers shown above replicate floral decorations made in the stencil technique that can be seen on wooden pillars and beams in many temples in Northern Thailand, Laos and Shan State. This manuscript also has a custom-made wrapper made from cotton with interwoven bamboo strips.

Besides gold leaf or gold paint, other materials were applied on the lacquer as well. Mother-of-pearl inlay was very popular in central Thailand, but it was also adopted in Lanna and Laos due to close cultural relationships and exchange or transfer of Buddhist scriptures.  

Kammavācā text in Tham script from Chiang Mai with black and red lacquered covers and mother-of-pearl inlay, 19th century. British Library Or.16077. Bequest from Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection.  noc

Rough shells or their parts were cut into platelets of various shapes before inlaid into the lacquer. The production of items with such intricate decorations required special skills and experienced craftsmanship. Traditionally, mother-of-pearl inlay was used in Thailand exclusively for ecclesiastical objects and was under royal patronage until the end of the 19th century. The manuscript covers shown above are thought to have been produced in central Thailand and may have been given to a royal monastery in Chiang Mai.

Another method of decorating wooden manuscript boards was to cover them with black lacquer, then to use a stylus to incise floral ornaments once the lacquer had dried. Afterwards, red lacquer was rubbed on the incisions in order to create a contrasting black and red design. This technique may have been imported into Lanna and Laos from the Burmese and Shan traditions.   

LaoCoverOr.13157 (2)
Wooden lacquered cover of a Kammavācā manuscript dated 1918 in Tham script from Lanna or northwestern Laos. British Library Or.13157.   noc

To provide additional protection against dust and mould, palm leaf manuscripts were often wrapped in a piece of cloth, which could either be custom-made or simply an unused lady’s skirt, a hand-woven shawl or an imported piece of cloth (for example printed Indian cotton). Custom-made palm leaf wrappers could also be made from local or imported silk. Occasionally such wrappers were interwoven with bamboo strips to provide extra stability for palm leaf manuscripts which had no covers. Another type of manuscript cloth took the form of a long cotton or silk bag that was sewn to match exactly the size of the palm leaves.

Bundles of palm leaves in Tham script with a hand-woven lady’s skirt from northern Laos used as a manuscript wrapper, 19th or early 20th century. British Library, Or.16895.  noc


Conway, Susan. The Shan. Culture, art and crafts. Bangkok: River Books, 2006

DLLM (Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts) (retrieved 05.12.2014)

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

Terwiel, Barend J. Shan manuscripts, part 1. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2003

Tingley, Nancy. Doris Duke. The Southeast Asian Art Collection. New York: The Foundation for Southeast Asian Art and culture, 2003

Warren, William. Lanna style. Art and design of Northern Thailand. 3rd ed. Bangkok: Asia Books, 2004

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


20 January 2015

Ibrahim: portrait of a Malay scribe

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Thanks to a chance encounter with a Scottish artist in Calcutta in 1810, we are in possession of a rare portrait of one of the Malay scribes responsible for copying a number of Malay manuscripts now held in the British Library. Ibrahim, who was born in Kedah in 1780, was the younger son of Hakim Long Fakir Kandu, a prominent merchant from the south Indian Chulia community. Ibrahim and his older brother Ahmad both worked in Penang as scribes for the British – Ahmad for the merchant Robert Scott, while Ibrahim was employed by Thomas Stamford Raffles. In 1810 Ahmad visited Bengal in the company of Scott, and recorded his impressions in the Hikayat perintah negeri Benggala (Add.12386). By great coincidence, that same year Ibrahim too sailed to Calcutta with his employer, Raffles. At a gathering at Government House on 15 September 1810, Ibrahim caught the eye of Maria Graham: ‘The most singular figure of this motley group was a Malay moonshi, whom Dr Leyden had brought to the assembly’, and her portrait of Ibrahim adorns the frontispiece to her Journal of a Residence in India (1812).  Ibrahim, aged thirty, is portrayed sitting cross-legged wearing a head covering, jacket, shirt and sarong, all made of checked Indian pelikat trade-cloth, with a large pending or almond-shaped belt buckle, holding an octagonal silver tobacco box and with his his keris (dagger) beside him.


Portrait of Ibrahim in 1810, from Maria Graham, Journal of a Residence in India (Edinburgh, 1812). British Library, V8668, frontispiece.  noc

Raffles had arrived in Penang in September 1805, having studied Malay on the voyage out from England. Probably acting on the advice of his intellectual mentor (and convalescent house guest) John Leyden, around January 1806 Raffles gathered a team of six scribes to copy Malay books for him. Among the Malay manuscripts which have recently been digitised are at least four volumes bearing Ibrahim’s name as scribe. Three specify that they were copied for Raffles, but were evidently presented to Leyden, for they came to the India Office Library in Leyden’s estate in 1824. 

The earliest of the manuscripts to mention Raffles's name is a copy of Hikayat Parang Puting (MSS Malay D.3), concerning the adventures of Budak Miskin, son of the princess of Langkam Jaya, one of a few Malay works which according to Braginsky (2004: 72) may best preserve the primordial pre-Islamic 'monomyth' of the sacral cosmic marriage of the male and female principles.

Decorated title page of Hikayat Parang Puting, with an outline of the contents, set within rectangular borders filled with floral and foliate motifs: Inilah cetera orang dahulu kala diceterakan oleh orang yang empunya cetera hikayat Parang Puting anak dewa laksana dewa dari kayangan terlalu indah perkataan maka ia berperang dengan naga di dalam laut dengan sabab tuan puteri hendak diambil naga itu inilah ceteranya. British Library, MSS Malay D.3, f.1r.  noc

Colophon, dated 29 Syawal 1220 (20 January 1806): pada sanat 1220 tahun2 wau pada sembilan likur hari bulan Syawal pada hari Selasa ditamatkan surat Hikayat Parang Puting Tuan Mister Raffles empunya surat ini wa-katibuhu Ibrahim. British Library, MSS Malay D.3, f.63v (detail).  noc

Later that same year, Ibrahim also copied the Hikayat Mesa Tandraman (MSS Malay C.3) for Raffles. Described as a Javanese story, it tells of two divine brothers Sang Dermadewa and Dewa Kisna Indra. The latter became a hermit on the mountain Puspagiri and the former became king of Kuripan.

The colophon, dated 6 Rejab 1221 (19 September 1806), states that the owner was Mister Raffles and the scribes were Ibrahim and Ismail: pada sanat 1221 tahun2 dal akhir pada enam hari bulan Rejab kepada hari Jumaat waktu pukul empat ditamatkan hikayat ini adapun yang empunya hikayat Tuan Mister Raffles wa-katibuhu wa-syahidahu Ibrahim yang menyuratnya dengan Ismail. British Library, MSS Malay C.3, f.164r (detail).  noc

The third manuscript, Hikayat Isma Yatim (MSS Malay C.5), is a well-known story which may have been a personal favourite of Malay scribes because the hero, for once, is not a prince but a writer.

The colophon of Hikayat Isma Yatim giving the date of completion as 29 Jumadilakhir 1222 (3 September 1807), and naming the owner as Mister Raffles and the scribe as Ibrahim: maka ditamatkan hikayat ini kepada malam Arba' waktu pukul dua belas kepada sanat 1222 tahun2 alif pada sembilan likur hari bulan Jumadilakhir adapun hikayat ini tuan Mister Raffles yang empunya dia wa-katibuhu Ibrahim tamat. British Library, MSS Malay C.5, f.108r (detail).  noc

The fourth manuscript is a copy of the Syair Silambari (MSS Malay B.3), also called the Syair Sinyor Kosta, concerning the conflict between a Portuguese and a Chinese in Melaka over a woman. Written 11 days earlier than Hikayat Parang Puting, it may also have been comissioned by Raffles.

MSS Malay B.3, ff.22v-23r
The opening pages of Syair Silambari, decorated with floral borders in pen and ink, outlined in red.
British Library, MSS Malay B.3, ff.22v-23r.  noc

The closing lines of Syair Silambari state that the manuscript was completed by Ibrahim on 18 Syawal 1220 (9 January 1806): sanat 1220 tahun tahun wau pada dualapan belas hari bulan Syawal kepada hari Arb'a bahwa pada ketika itu ditamatkan kitab Silambari namanya kisah Feringgi ambil bini Cina di dalam negeri Melaka jadi perang besar dengan Wilanda adapun yang empunya surat ini wa-katibuhu Ibrahim. British Library, MSS Malay B.3, f.36r (detail).  noc

Following on immediately from the copy of Syair Silambari, on the reverse of the same sheet of paper and hence also certainly written by Ibrahim, is another poem in the form of a love letter to a lady, entitled Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, which may be Ibrahim’s own literary creation.

MSS Malay B.3, ff.36v-37r
Opening pages of Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, also copied by Ibrahim in 1806. British Library, MSS Malay B.3, ff.36v-37r.  noc

As can be seen from the images above, Ibrahim’s handwriting is very distinctive: his hand is small, neat, round, and upright, without a discernible slope to left or right.  Certain letters which are particularly characteristic are concave/convex tail of conjoined final nga/'ain, and the almost parallel shape of the ‘head’ of the letter-form jim/ca/ha/kha in its isolated position, as seen in the detail below.


The words 'siraja helang' from Syair surat kirim kepada perempuan, showing Ibrahim's characteristic 'parallel-headed' letter jim, and the concave-convex tail of nga. British Library, MSS Malay B.3, f.45r (detail).  noc

On the basis of the handwriting, it is possible to identify a few more manuscripts in the British Library that may have been (at least partially) copied by Ibrahim, such as a copy of the last chapters of the Hikayat Hang Tuah (MSS Malay B.1) shown below.  In addition Ibrahim is known to have copied two MSS of the Sejarah Melayu now in the Raffles collection in the Royal Asiatic Society (Raffles Malay 35, dated January 1808, and Raffles Malay 39, dated March 1812). 

MSS.Malay.B.1,ff.139-140 copy

Ibrahim's distinctive letter jim can be seen in the word raja at the start of the top line on the right hand page, and his nga in the word yang on the bottom line of the left hand page, in this MS of Hikayat Hang Tuah. British Library, MSS Malay B.1, ff.139v-140r.  noc

Further reading:

Ahmad Rijaluddin’s Hikayat Perintah Negeri Benggala. Edited and translated by C. Skinner.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1982. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 22).

V.I. Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature: a historical survey of genres, writings and literary views.  Leiden: KITLV, 2004.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


18 January 2015

Portrait of Major William Palmer and his family now on display

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The 'Palmer Family' is now on display at the British Library. Visitors to the Library can view the painting on the 3rd floor landing, near the entrance to the Science Reading Room and opposite the entrance to the Asian & African Studies Read Room. Due to the popularity and the high number of requests to be viewed by both researchers and descendants of William Palmer, the portrait has returned to the public area.

Major William Palmer with his second wife, the Mughal princess Bibi Faiz Bakhsh by Johann Zoffany, 1785. Oil on canvas; 40 by 50 ins (127 by 101.5 cms). British Library, F597.  noc

Purchased by the India Office Library in 1924, this striking group portrait features Major William Palmer, Bengal Artillery (1740-1816), with his wife, Bibi Faiz Bakhsh ‘Faiz-un-Nisa’ Begum (died 1828), on his right and her sister Nur Begum on his left. His children in order of age are William (baptised 20 March 1782), Mary (b. 1783), Hastings (baptised 27 December 1785). Three women attendants complete the group. Major Palmer wears a red military coat and yellow waistcoat and the women and children are wearing cream dresses. They are seated on a red carpet in a courtyard with palm and plantain trees.

Palmer was ADC to Warren Hastings in 1774 and Military Secretary between 1776 and 1785. He was at the Lucknow court at various times between 1782 and 1785 as Hastings’ confidential agent for the extraction of loans from the Nawab and to report on the Residents Middleton and Bristow and their staff, and acting Resident after their departure. He left Lucknow in July 1785, and was in 1786 appointed by Cornwallis to be Resident at Sindhia’s court, where he remained until 1798, and at the Peshwa’s court in Poona 1798-1801. He afterwards commanded the 4th Native Infantry until his death at Berhampore in 1816. His will describes his wife as ‘his devoted companion of more than 30 years’.

This unfinished painting had long been attributed to Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), but was in the 1970s reattributed to Francesco Renaldi. (1755-c.1799). Of Italian descent, Renaldi lived in England and studied at the Royal Academy in 1776. He went to India and reached Calcutta in August 1786, remaining there until 1789 when he visited Dacca. From 1790-95 he worked in Lucknow and returned to Calcutta, leaving India in February 1796. However, the ages of the children, especially that of the infant Hastings in Faiz Bakhsh’s arms, who cannot be more than a few months old, strongly indicate that the painting cannot be as late as August 1786, and must therefore have been painted between Zoffany’s arrival back in Lucknow in April 1785, and Palmer’s departure in July for Calcutta. This would explain the unfinished state of the canvas.

Mildred Archer discusses the reattribution in ‘India and British Portraiture’ (London, 1979), 281-86, where she also states that the lady on Palmer's left is his second or Lucknow wife, on account of what she thinks is their intimacy, but the evidence for this is decidedly dubious (she is not for example actually leaning on Palmer's leg as Archer states - it is his own hand that is visible there). The lady in question is almost certainly Bibi Faiz Bakhsh’s sister Nur Begum, who subsequently married General Benoit de Boigne, Commandant in the army of the Maratha general Sindhia, and who left India in 1797. He abandoned this lady in England and remarried in France, while she under the name of Helen Bennet remained in Horsham, where she died and is buried. The eldest child in the painting is William Palmer, founder and head of the notorious Hyderabad firm of Palmer and Co.