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

30 January 2015

Akbar's horoscopes: how to become a Leo if you are not

Add comment Comments (0)

Editor: On 31 October 2014 we held a successful one-day symposium ʻBritish Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Researchʼ at which Dr. Stephan Popp of the Institut für Iranistik, Vienna spoke on ʻHoroscopes as propaganda under Akbar and Shāh Jahānʼ. Although he is planning an expanded version of his paper for future publication, he has kindly agreed to summarise it for us here.

Or_12988_f034v
The birth of Timur showing astrologers on the right, drawing up his horoscope. From an imperial copy of Abu l-Fażl's Akbarnāma, c. 1602. Painting ascribed to Sūrdās Gujarātī (Or.12988, f. 34v)
 noc


In the 16th century, astrology was still an approved science both in Europe and in India, and many princes between Lisbon and Dhaka relied on the counsels of astrologers. Especially so the chronicle of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), the Akbarnāma by Abu l‑Fażl, which uses the emperor’s horoscope extensively to prove his claim to power. Akbar claimed to be the mujaddid (restorer of Islam) of the second Islamic millennium and the pre-destined perfect ruler. But first, some remarks on Mughal astrology and how it was supposed to work.


For this reason, let us then have a quick look at Akbar’s horoscope as it appears in the Akbarnāma:

Screenshot 2015-01-18 20.32.43Akbar’s nativity as drawn at his birth by the astrologer Maulānā Chānd (Akbarnāma, p. 70)


A horoscope is a diagram showing the sky over a given place at a given time. It consists of: 1) the zodiac, 2) the houses, i.e. a second zodiac constructed with the ascendant (i.e. the point that is just rising) as the starting point, and 3) the planets at their places for that particular time. This horoscope is constructed on a square grid, with the east on top (modern horoscopes are in the form of a circle, with the north on top). The twelve fields are not the zodiac signs but the houses. They are equated with the zodiac sign their first degree falls in, although this is at the very end in the case of Akbar. House I is top centre, and the other houses follow counter-clockwise. The planets are entered, but without their exact position in the zodiacal sign. Aspects, i.e. significant angles between objects that strengthen or weaken their power, are not indicated in this horoscope but are mentioned in the text where necessary. Moreover, several kinds of subdivisions of zodiac signs also have properties that strengthen or weaken a planet, which in turn strengthens or weakens a house.

Thus, a horoscope contains ca. 250 interrelated data, and the art of the astrologer consists in picking the right influences and interpreting them in an appropriate way. This is obviously highly subjective, even if the planets had influences. No wonder, as Abraham Eraly has observed (Eraly, p. 109), astrologers have been called the psychiatrists or confessors of the Mughal Empire.


Akbar’s horoscopes

This blog will show how astrologers acted not only as the psychiatrists but also as the spin doctors of the Mughal Empire. Abu l‑Fażl ibn Mubārak, Akbar’s mentor on policy and official chronicler, had a genuine interest in astrology. That he regarded it as a fully-fledged science is clear from the fact that he comes up with four different horoscopes of Akbar and discusses their differences (Akbarnama, pp. 119–123). Eva Orthmann (p. 108 below) proves that the horoscopes are based on genuine calculations and not made up by Abu l‑Fażl. Abu l‑Fażl writes that an Indian and a Western horoscope were cast at Akbar’s birth in 1542 by Jyotik Rai and by Maulānā Chānd. The results were different due to the different definitions of zodiacal signs in Vedic and Western astrology. Indian astrology defines the zodiac as the constellations in the sky whereas western astrology defines the zodiac as the ecliptic divided into twelve equal parts beginning from the spring point (where the sun rises at the spring equinox). The spring point, however, slowly moves backward through the constellations, so that at the present time it is at the end of Pisces, not in Aries.

Equinox_path
The precession of the spring point (0° Aries) in the last 6000 years. Kevin Heagen via Wikimedia Commons
CC-BY-SA

Because of this movement, Abu l‑Fażl says, the Vedic results were 17° behind the Western ones in Akbar’s time (whereas now they are 25° behind). Thus, Akbar’s ascendant fell in Leo according to the Indians, which suited an emperor, but in the Western horoscope, it fell in Virgo. Abu l‑Fażl discusses this difference, effectively discrediting the Indian astrologers (pp. 119–122). Still, as acknowledged by Orthmann (p. 110), ‘royal’ Leo would have been a much more suitable ascendant for an aspiring emperor than Virgo.

When the great scientist and physician Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī joined Akbar’s court in 1583, Abu l-Fażl asked him to correct the two horoscopes. Instead, Fatḥullāh cast his own, using the old “star tables of the Greeks and Persians” of ca. 830 AD instead of the new ones of Ulugh Beg. In this way, he arrived at the ascendant falling at the very end of Leo (28°36’) instead of 7° Virgo. Abu l-Fażl calls this “the most reliable horoscope” (p. 94) although containing outdated data, and devotes two chapters to its description and predictions.

Screenshot 2015-01-18 20.26.28
How Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī managed to put the ascendant back into ‘royal’ Leo. The old tables shift the house grid 9½ degrees back. The grid has also passed over Venus, so that it is at the beginning of the second house now, not at the end of the first.

When the diagram was ready, the task of the astrologer was to pick those influences that suited successful rule. Combining the right influences from the vast data, Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī sings Akbar’s praises (p. 111):

As this (4th) house is a Fixed Sign, and its lord (Mars) is in exaltation and has a beneficent aspect, territory will continually be coming into the possession of the King’s servants…,

and even (p. 108):

The Native will exceed the natural period of life, viz., 120 years.

Or_12988_f015r
Abu l‑Fażl's chapter describing Fatḥullāh Shīrāzī's horoscope.  Although the diagram has been left blank, the details are all supplied in the Persian text (Or.12988, f. 15r
 noc

Overall, the horoscopes emphasize Akbar’s success in conquest, acquiring wealth and in administration, and his supreme reason by which he guides the state and settles disputes. Moreover, the astrologer Maulānā Chand argues that Akbar is greater than Timur because Akbar’s Mars is stronger (p. 79). That the horoscopes contradict themselves is only superficial, Abu l‑Fażl concludes, for, he claims, God hides Akbar’s greatness from the undeserving (p. 123):

Owing to the jealousy of God, the truth of the holy nativity remained under the veil of concealment and was hidden behind the curtain of contradiction. But… if each of the horoscopes be looked at with the eye of judgment… it becomes plain that… there is nothing equal to them.

A person deserving special mention was, according to Abu l‑Fażl, Akbar’s father Humāyūn, an accomplished astrologer and “by the perfection of his personality enlightened by flashes of forthcoming events” (p. 124). Humāyūn danced with joy when he read the horoscope, Abu l-Fażl says. In this way, he tries to make his readers believe that if they see nothing but contradiction, this is because they do not see well enough. Even the astrologers, accomplished scientists, did not see everything. But they did their very best to combine their data in the way that Akbar and Abu l‑Fażl wanted them to: to “discover” that Akbar was the king of kings.

 

Further reading
Abu l‑Fazl ʿAllāmi: The Akbarnama of Abu-l-Fazl, tr. Henry Beveridge. 3 vols. Calcutta 1897–1939 (1907 reprint digitised by Google available here).
Abraham Eraly: The Mughal World, Life in India’s Last Golden Age, New Delhi: Penguin, 2007.
Kushyār Ibn Labbān: Introduction to astrology, ed. and transl. by Michio Yano, Tokyo: Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa, 1997.
Māshā’allāh Ibn Asari: The astrological history of Māshā'allāh, ed. E. S. Kennedy and David Pingree. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971.
A. Azfar Moin: “Challenging the Mughal Emperor: The Islamic Millennium according to ʿAbd al‑Qadir Badayuni”, in Metcalf, Barbara: Islam in South Asia in Practice, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.
Eva Orthmann: “Circular Motions: Private Pleasure and Public Prognostication in the Nativities of the Mughal Emperor Akbar,” in: Günther Oestmann, H. Darrel Rutkin, and Kocku von Stuckrad (ed.): Horoscopes and Public Spheres, Essays on the History of Astrology, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005, pp. 101–114.

 

Stephan Popp, Institut für Iranistik, Vienna (email: stephan.popp@oeaw.ac.at)
 ccownwork

 

27 January 2015

A Malay spur to valour: the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah

Add comment Comments (0)

The story of Muḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiyyah – a son of the caliph ‘Alī by a captive from the tribe of the Banū Ḥanīfah, and half-brother to the Prophet’s grandsons Ḥasan and Ḥusayn – was composed in Persian by an anonymous author in the fourteenth century, and very soon after that translated into Malay, probably around the court of Pasai in north Sumatra. In this tale the otherwise marginal figure of the historical Muḥammad b. al-Ḥanafiyyah is transformed into a quintessential Islamic hero, emerging victorious after numerous battles.   

MSS Malay B.6, ff.1v-2r
Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, with decorated initial frames, copied by Muhammad Kasim on 29 Jumadilakhir 1220 (25 August 1805), probably in Penang. British Library, MSS Malay B.6, ff.1v-2r.  noc

The Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah became popular throughout the Malay world, with its stature as a spur to valour cemented by an iconic episode in the most famous Malay chronicle. The Sulalat al-Salatin, popularly known as the Sejarah Melayu or ‘Malay Annals’, was composed sometime in the sixteenth century to record for posterity the glory of the great kingdom of Melaka, before its defeat by Portuguese forces under Afonso d’Albuquerque in 1511. In the Sejarah Melayu, the night before the Portuguese attack, the young knights of Melaka sent a message to the sultan requesting the recitation of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah. The sultan tests their resolve by offering instead a tale of a lesser hero, the Hikayat Amir Hamzah. The nobles reply that as long as the sultan’s courage matches that of Muhammad Hanafiah, they will match that of his generals, whereupon the sultan accedes to their request. The full episode from the Sejarah Melayu is reproduced below, in C.C. Brown’s translation:

‘That night the war-chiefs and the young nobles were waiting in the hall of audience, and the young nobles said, “Why do we sit here idly? It would be well for us to read a tale of war that we may profit from it.” And Tun Muhammad Unta said, “That is very true, sir. Let us ask the Raja to give us the Story of Muhammad Hanafiah.” Then the young nobles said to Tun Aria, “Go, sir, and take this message to the Ruler, that all of us crave from his the Story of Muhammad Hanafiah, in the hope that we may obtain profit from it, for the Franks [i.e. Portuguese] are attacking tomorrrow.” Tun Aria accordingly went into the palace and presented himself before Sultan Ahmad, to whom he addressed the young nobles’ request. And Sultan Ahmad gave him the Story of Hamzah saying, “We would give you the Story of Muhammad Hanafiah did we not fear that the bravery of the gentlemen of our court falls short of the bravery of Muhammad Hanafiah! But it may be that their bravery is such as was the bravery of Hamzah and that is why we give you the Story of Hamzah.” Tun Aria then left the palace bearing the Story of Hamzah and he told the young nobles what Sultan Ahmad had said. At first they were silent, but presently Tun Isak Berakah replied to Tun Aria, “Represent humbly to the Ruler that he has spoken amiss. If he will be as Muhammad Hanafiah, we will be as war-chief Bania’ [i.e. of Beniar, the headquarters of the historical Muhammad al-Hannafiyyah]: if his bravery is that of Muhammad Hanafiah, ours will be that of war-chief Bania.” And when Tun Aria took this message from Tun Isak Berakah to Sultan Ahmad, the king smiled and gave them the story of Muhammad Hanafiah instead.’ (Brown 1970: 162-3).  

In fact, neither of the two manuscripts of the Sejarah Melayu in the British Library include this episode. Or. 14734, copied in Melaka in 1873, omits any mention of the nobles' request for Hikayat Muhammad Hanfiah on f.174v, perhaps part of a late tendency to erase any possible Shi'i tinges from Malay literature. In Or. 16214, copied in Singapore around 1832, the chapter on the Portuguese attack is missing.

Mss_malay_d_5_f080r-cropb
Final page of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, copied by Mahmud ibn Husain on 14 Syaaban 1220 (7 November 1805): tamatlah Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah anakda cucuda nabi s.a.w. pada sanat 1220 tahun2 wau pada empat belas haribulan Syaaban pada malam Arba' wa-katibuhu Mahmud ibn Husain. British Library, MSS Malay D.5, f.80r.   noc

The Malay Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah was the subject of a detailed study by Lode Brakel (1975), who traced thirty manuscripts, including three in the British Library, which have now all been digitised. Two, from the John Leyden collection, were both copied in Penang or Kedah in 1805 (MSS Malay B.6 and MSS Malay D.5, Brakel’s source ‘F’). A third manuscript, from the collection of John Crawfurd (Add. 12377, Brakel’s source ‘G’), may have been acquired in Java but the use of the titles Teuku and Teungku sugggest a link with Aceh. The tale is also known in Acehnese, Bugis, Javanese, Makasarese, Madurese, Minangkabau and Sundanese versions.

Add_ms_12377_ff185v-186r
Final pages of Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, copied by Teungku Kecik and owned by Teuku Itam: tamat wa-katibuhu Teungku Kecik menyurat dia Teuku (t.a.’.k.w) Itam empunya {empunya} surat ini tamat. British Library, Add.12377, ff. 185v-186r.  noc

Brakel also documented two manuscripts of the Persian original, one – at the time thought to be unique – in the British Library (Add. 8149), and another in St. Petersburg. By comparing the Malay manuscripts with Add. 8149 (a copy from Murshidabad in Bengal, written in 1721), Brakel was able to show that the Malay text was a direct translation from the Persian original, in some cases even preserving the order of words (Brakel 1975: 12-13).

Add.8149 (1)
Opening page of the Persian Hikāyat Muḥammad Ḥanafiyyah, following on from a tale of Ḥasan and Ḥusayn, Murshidabad, 1721. British Library, Add. 8149, ff. 28v-29r.

Further reading:

L.F. Brakel, The Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiyyah: a medieval Muslim-Malay romance.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 12).

L.F. Brakel, The story of Muhammad Hanafiyyah: a medieval Muslim romance.  Translated from the Malay by L.F. Brakel.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 16).

C.C. Brown, Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals.  An annotated translation by C.C.Brown, with a new introduction by R.Roolvink.  Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

 ccownwork

23 January 2015

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

Add comment Comments (0)

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.

Or_16114_fblefr
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.

LaoOr16790
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.  

LannaOr16077
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.

Wrappersmall
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

References

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

 ccownwork