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

10 February 2016

A Group of Sikh Miniatures on Ivory

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A recently acquired group of miniatures painted on ivory and laid down on paper supports with identifying inscriptions,  still mostly with their original glass, is of considerable interest. Such items were increasingly the stock products of the tourist trade in Delhi in the later nineteenth century, but the inscriptions of this particular group suggested that they must have been made before 1850 and in Lahore or Amritsar rather than Delhi, the usual production centre for such items. The portraits include various Maharajas of the Punjab from 1839-49 with other rulers. They were presumably bought and pasted down onto sheets of paper in order to be sent off to Britain for the enlightenment of friends or relations at home, so that they could put a face to the names that occupied so much of the British press in the 1840s with the doings of the Lahore court and the two Sikh Wars, which ended in the annexation of the Punjab in 1849. Several of the inscriptions are unfortunately in error.

Inscribed: Now Mahal Sing successor to Rangeet Sing [i.e. Kharak Singh]; Maharajah of Lahore Ranjeet Sing; Bahadoor Shaw present King of Delhi [i.e. Akbar II]  (British Library, Add.Or.5680-82)   noc

The miniatures are arranged in four groups. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore (r. 1799-1839) is given primacy of place in the first group with the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar (r. 1838-58) to his right and Ranjit Singh’s son Kharak Singh (r. 1839-40) to his left. The inscriber has wrongly identified the latter as Naumahal Singh (r. 1840), who was the son and successor of Maharaja Kharak Singh (see next). He was still only aged nineteen when he was killed on returning from his father’s obsequies by masonry falling from an arch, and the portrait is of his father Kharak Singh. For his portrait around 1840 showing him with just a chin beard, see Archer 1966, pl. 35. The inscribed ‘present King of Delhi’ (as the British called the Emperor) dates paintings and inscriptions to at least before 1858. The inscriber seems mistaken here also, since the portrait is surely of Bahadur Shah’s father Akbar II (r. 1806-37) (see Dalrymple and Sharma 2012, nos. 30, 32-36). 

Inscribed: Dhuleep Sing present Ruler of Lahore; Kurruck Sing successor to Now Mahal Sing of Lahore; Kurrum Sing Rajah of Putteala [i.e. Kharak Singh] (British Library, Add.Or.5683-85)   noc

The second group has again a central portrait, that of Maharaja Kharak Singh (r. 1839-40), son and successor of Ranjit Singh, who died, it was rumoured, of poison. He has a very distinctive long pointed black beard. The inscriber has muddled Kharak Singh and his son Naumahal Singh. The latter was succeeded by Maharaja Sher Singh (r. 1840-43), another son of Ranjit Singh, who is represented later in the portraits, see below. Kharak Singh’s successor was Maharaja Dalip Singh (r. 1843-49), the youngest son of Ranjit Singh, identified with an inscription ‘the present Ruler of Lahore’ which firmly dates the whole group to before 1849. The other portrait in this group purports to be Maharaja Karam Singh of Patiala (r. 1813-45), ruler of one of the Cis-Sutlej states outside Ranjit Singh’s empire and allied to British India, but this portrait does not resemble him (for his portrait, see Stronge 1999, no. 188 and Falk and Archer 1981, no. 553). Again the long pointed black beard suggests Kharak Singh as in Add.Or.5680 above.

Inscribed: Rajah of Nepaul; Sumroo Begum; Mirza Zanghir 3 son King of Delhi [i.e. Maharaja Sher Singh]; Dost Mahomet (British Library, Add.Or.5686-89)   noc

Four of the remaining ivories are meant to be of local notables. These are the Maharaja of Nepal, who would seem to be the teenage Maharaja Surendra Bir Bikram Shah (b. 1829, r. 1847-81). Next is the Begum Samru of Sardhana (d. 1836) who ruled her own jagir near Meerut east of Delhi, one of the most redoubtable characters of early 19th century India. Next, a portrait labelled as Mirza Jahangir, the third and favourite son of the Emperor Akbar II, who died in confinement in Allahabad in 1821, cannot be him since this figure is wearing a Sikh type of turban. In fact he is almost certainly the missing Maharaja Sher Singh of Lahore (r. 1841-43), identified by comparison with other portraits by Sikh artists as well as his well-known portraits by both Emily Eden and the Austrian artist T.A. Schoefft (for his portraits by Indian artists, see Archer 1966, pls. 92, 104). Finally in this group is Dost Muhammad, the Amir of Afghanistan (r. 1825-39, and again 1845-63). Dost Muhammad repeatedly fought with the Sikhs in his first reign over the disputed border territory of Peshawar, but then allied himself with them in the second period of his reign before the final annexation. He is often depicted in other groupings of Sikh notables.

The various dates of rulers presented above suggest that the grouping of the portraits was done some time between 1847 and 1849. After the final annexation of the Punjab in 1849, artists in both Lahore and Amritsar produced many sets of portraits on ivory of Sikh rulers and notables in the period of their greatness. The British Library already has five such sets (Archer 1969, nos. 190-194), including one set from the 1850s that is almost certainly among the earliest known (Stronge 1999, no. 20), but this new set is definitely from the late 1840s. It must have been put together put together by a British officer probably in the British Residency in Lahore that was established by the Treaty of Bhairowal in 1846, and sent back home as suggested above for the enlightenment of his friends.

While the arrangement of the first two groups of three portraits is perhaps arbitrary, nonetheless the central large portrait flanked by two smaller ones closely resembles that of the jewels of bazubands, the jewelled armbands worn by the elite as can be seen in the larger portrait of Kharak Singh above (Add.Or.5684). Whereas portraits on ivory by Delhi artists were normally individual commissions, and even when in sets such as of the Mughal emperors were individually framed, the idea behind these groupings of Sikh notables seems to have been to have them mounted up in a frame, as are indeed all those in the British Library which are enclosed in 19th century frames (see Stronge 1999, no. 20).

Inscribed: [Ko]otub Minar Church at Delhi [Bui]ldings… at Delhi (British Library Add.Or.5691-94)   noc

The set ends (apart from one unidentified ruler, Add.Or.5690) rather oddly perhaps with three pictures on ivory of monuments of Delhi, all of them mounted up on the same sort of paper and with inscriptions in the same handwriting. In the middle is what is meant to be the church at Delhi, the church of St. James, built by Col. James Skinner near the Kashmir Gate and consecrated in 1836. It does however look rather more like a Mughal tomb such as that of Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri and clearly the artist did not have a very good model for his depiction, although the dome and the parapet are passable. The heavy eave and the Mughal jalis or screens should not be there, but the tomb of William Fraser of 1836 seems to be present in front of the church.

Pictures on ivory of monuments had a different purpose from portraits, since often at this period they were mounted as brooches. Indeed one of the earliest such examples is a picture of the gateway of the Taj Mahal mounted up in a gold brooch with an inscription saying that it was sent from India by Lady Sale in 1840 (private collection). Later such pictures were mounted up into ivory boxes or else, as small circles or ovals, into cufflinks or shirt studs. Apart from brooches, they could also, we now learn from this set, be turned into earrings, since it has two pictures of the Qutb Minar, the famous 12/13th century tower in old Delhi, painted on shapes that are surely destined to be long drop earrings, when encased in gold. Below the tower are painted little round pictures of the Taj Mahal in Agra on one and what appears to be the tomb of Ghiyath al-Din Tughluq on the other. An additional small circular painting of the Quwwat al-Islam mosque and the Qutb Minar may indeed have been for one of the roundels covering the ear lobe from which such drop earrings normally hung in the Victorian era. The roundel is actually loose but is positioned in the above image as if this was indeed the case.

The earring paintings can be dated by the presence of the cupola in Mughal style added to the top of the Qutb Minar during a restoration in 1828 by Major Robert Smith of the Bengal Engineers, which was removed in 1848. Although artists in Lahore or Amritsar might not necessarily have known this, they liked to be up to date with their depictions, so this is yet another reason to date the set to the late 1840s.

Although there is no direct evidence that this group of miniatures in ivory was painted in the Punjab, their subjects of local interest to the Punjab and their somewhat unsophisticated technique would certainly suggest that this was so. Sikh artists do not seem to have attempted to paint on ivory any earlier. Such work when done by Delhi artists is more refined and polished, and this will be the subject of a second blog.


Archer, M., Company Drawings in the India Office Library, HMSO, London, 1972
Archer, W.G., Painting of the Sikhs, HMSO, London, 1966
Dalrymple, W., and Sharma, Y., Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857, Asia Society, New York, 2012
Falk, T., and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, Sotheby Parke Bernet, London, 1981
Stronge, S., ed., The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, V & A, London, 1999

J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts (Emeritus)

03 February 2016

Exploring Thai art: James Low

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James Low was one of the first Europeans to visit the Andaman sea coast of Thailand, stretching from Phuket to the Malaysian border, which is nowadays one of the great tourist destinations of the world. Low’s mission took place in his line of duty as an officer of the English East India Company based at Penang.

Detail from a drawing depicting the reception of James Low by the son of the Raja of Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat) in 1824. Drawing attributed to “Boon Khon”. The use of a Western perspective as in the depiction of the chairs was unusual in Thai art of the early 19th century. British Library, Add. 27370, f.18  Noc

Born on 4 April 1791 at Causland in Scotland to Alexander Low and his wife Anne Thompson, Low graduated from Edinburgh College and was then nominated for a cadetship in the East India Company’s Madras Army in 1812. He was accepted and embarked from Portsmouth on the East Indiaman Astell, which reached Madras in July 1812. During the first five years, Low acquired military competencies and language skills. The Company’s policy was that their officers had to be capable of basic communication with the Indian soldiers under their command. In May 1817 Low was appointed Adjudant, and then promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in August of the same year. In January 1819 Low moved to the East India Company’s settlement in Penang and spent the rest of his career in and around the Straits of Malacca. In 1820 he was given command of the Penang Local Corps until the corps was disbanded in 1827.

Since Low had received a mathematical and philosophical education at Edinburgh College, he nurtured an interest in the study of languages. The posting to Penang offered the opportunity to acquire language skills in both Malay and Thai. The knowledge of Thai was particularly important in the light of events on the Malay peninsula, to which the Burmese had sent their last military expedition against Siam, directed at its west coast territories. Subsequently, the British at Penang found themselves in the middle of a conflict between the Siamese Governor, known as the Raja of Ligor (Nakhon Si Thammarat), and the Sultan of Kedah, who had fled to Penang instead of providing the support which had been requested from him by the Raja of Ligor.

LOW02 RAS collection 027.012
Drawing by James Low of a village with pagodas in Martaban (Mottama in Mon State, Burma) 1825. RAS 027.012. Photograph courtesy of Nancy Charley, Royal Asiatic Society

Low’s was the second mission to Siam, following John Crawfurd’s first mission that was mainly concerned with resolving the legal status of Penang. The second mission of 1824 under Low’s command was prompted by the British declaration of war on Burma. Its aim was to enlist the support of the Raja of Ligor, who was in command of most of the Siamese territories on the west coast of the peninsula including Kedah, for the planned British move up the Irrawaddy river. Low described the events of the mission in a report on his Public Mission to His Highness the Rajah of Ligor, and in more detail in his Journal of a Public Mission to the Rajah of Ligor. Low also produced a map of Siam, Cambodia and Laos. After his mission to Ligor, he was posted to Tenasserim where he produced more maps and landscape drawings. In 1826, Low was promoted to Captain and was sent on other missions to the Malay state of Perak. Shortly after, he was appointed Superintendent of Lands in Province Wellesley in Penang, a post he held until 1840 when he was made Assistant Resident of Singapore. He finally retired in 1845 but returned to Edinburgh only in 1850, where he died just two years later.

Although Low's main responsibility as an officer of the East India Company was to settle disputes with local chiefs in the interests of the British – a task he did not always succeed in fulfilling – he was also a pioneer in the study of Thai language, literature and art by Westerners. The lack of textbooks inspired him to produce a Grammar of the Thai or Siamese language (1828), and he published a collection of works On the government, the literature, and the mythology of the Siamese (1831-36) as well as articles on Thai Buddhist art, Buddhist law, local histories and ethnic minorities of the Malay peninsula. He also studied inscriptions and translated parts of Thai Buddhist scriptures, and the Malay historical text from Kedah, Merong Mahawangsa. Low’s ability to observe and then describe in detail a variety of aspects of Thai art and culture helped to make his mission journal an interesting source for the study of everyday life and cultural practices in 19th century Siam.

Copy of a Thai zodiac in Thai manuscript painting style of the 19th century. Artist unknown. British Library, Add. 27370, f.14 Noc

Another version of the Thai zodiac shown above this one, with added background landscapes in Chinese watercolour technique. Probably by the artist “Boon Khon”. British Library, Add. 27370, f.15 Noc
Low clearly had a strong interest in Thai art, and amassed an impressive collection of fine paintings and drawings from southern Thailand. These included rare copies from a Thai Buddhist cosmology associated with a Thai text, Traiphum, which is thought to date back to the 14th century. Other subjects of these artworks are the Ten Birth Tales of the Buddha, illustrations from Thai divination manuals and zodiacs, as well as depictions of Low’s reception in Ligor, genre scenes, and of religious artefacts. Several of the drawings contain a note in English in Low’s handwriting that they are copies by a Siamese artist from original manuscripts, and to one pencil sketch of three Chinese gods Low had added in ink the note “Boon Khon delint” (copied by Boon Khon). On another pencil drawing of a vase, the artist is named as Sayid Nuh, his title indicating a person of Arabic origin, a descendant of the Prophet.

Impression of a Rajamukha wheel, which is used in Thai and Malay divination. Attributed to “Boon Khon”. British Library, Or.14179 Noc

Unfortunately, not all of the artworks bear the name of an artist, but it is believed that most of these are copies from Thai manuscripts by the artist “Boon Khon”, who Low said was “a Siamese”. However, the fact that chairs, musical instruments and round objects are shown in Western perspective – something unusual in Thai art of the first half of the 19th century – and that certain features of plants, landscapes, architectural ornaments and faces of the figures appear rather Chinese in style than Thai, suggest that the artist mentioned as “Boon Khon” was probably a Chinese painter who may have acquired some drawing skills from Low himself. A comparison of pencil drawings by Low, now held at the Royal Asiatic Society in London, and works attributed to “Boon Khon” show some striking similarities, especially when it comes to details like plant features. Some of the coloured drawings showing the same motif were made in different styles and techniques, suggesting that artists copied from each other. There may actually have been a third artist - one who was skilled in Thai painting techniques - who worked for Low or who trained “Boon Khon” to copy paintings from Thai manuscripts.

Part of a painting of Buddha’s Last Ten Birth Tales, probably by the artist “Boon Khon”, depicts scenes from the Candakumara Jataka and Bhuridatta Jataka. The faces and breasts of the Naga princesses at the bottom, but also the gable and roof of the building at the top, are untypical for Thai manuscript painting. Some trees and tufts of grass have similarities with plants in pencil drawings made by Low. The lotus plants at the bottom are similar to lotuses drawn by “Boon Khon” as part of a Buddha footprint, reprinted in Low’s article “On Buddha and the Prabat” (1835). British Library, Add. 27370, f.12 Noc

Part of Low’s collection of Thai drawings and paintings was acquired by the British Museum in 1866 from Alan White Esquire, and is now held in the British Library. Most of the artworks have been digitised and are available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts viewer (Add MS 27370). Another part of Low’s art collection, including several of his own drawings, is held in the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Although not much research has been done on Low’s art collection, it is a popular source of inspiration for Thai designers.

Some designs for children’s shirts marketed in the early 2000s by Ayodhya, a Bangkok-based home decorative brand, used paintings from Low’s collection for inspiration. British Library, ORB.Misc/171

Further reading

Charley, Nancy. James Low in Thailand and Burma.
Farouk Yahya. Magic and divination in Malay illustrated manuscripts. Leiden, 2015 (see pp. 128/9 on the Rajamukha wheel)
Farrington, Anthony (ed.). Low’s mission to Southern Siam 1824. Bangkok, 2007
Ginsburg, Henry. Low in Thailand. The James Low album of paintings. FMR (Franco Maria Ricci) No. 13, 1985, pp. 125-140
Ginsburg, Henry. Thai manuscript painting. London, 1989 (see pp. 15 and 25 on Low’s collection)
Low, James. Extracts from the Journal of a Political Mission to the Raja of Ligor in Siam. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal No. 79, July 1838.
Low, James. On Buddha and the Prabat. Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society No. 3, London 1835, pp. 57-124

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

My thanks to Nancy Charley for providing photographs of artworks in the Low collection at the Royal Asiatic Society, and to Annabel Gallop and Farouk Yahya for their advice on Malay manuscript painting.

29 January 2016

‘Spying’ on 100 Black Men of London: A Ceremony of Learning

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Spying? Not really. Let me explain. I am one of a team of educators at the British Library who deliver workshops for school and community groups. Shortly before Christmas, The 100 Black Men of London - a community-based charity - brought a large group of black youths to the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition. They had organised their own workshop and were using the British Library’s Learning Centre to feedback and share their learning.

This is what I suddenly glimpsed through the glass sections of the connecting doors between the learning rooms: boys taking turns to stand before their peers, to present and share their new knowledge gleaned from the exhibition.
100bmol at british library
The group from 100 Black Men of London in the British Library’s Learning Centre.

I was transfixed, for it seemed to me they were reclaiming ground, making the newly-acquired knowledge about their ancestral place of origin their own. They spoke with pride and developing confidence and were clapped each in turn. I was deeply moved.

Olu Alake, of 100 Black Men of London, writes about the visit: ‘Our group of almost 60 young people and some of their parents found the exhibition very enlightening and empowering. It was for instance very gratifying that by the end of that very day, one of our youth groups had changed their WhatsApp group image to one of the adinkra symbols for leadership which they had seen in the exhibition!’ This, for me, is essential use of a brilliant exhibition, and an opportunity for the British Library to build community.

Section of a hand-stamped textile on display in the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, showing adinkra symbols from Ghana. Some panels show the King’s symbol (adinkrahene) composed of three concentric circles, signifying leadership and greatness. Ghana, 1960s. British Library.

The education workshops we have delivered to varying school groups, as part of the West Africa exhibition programme, have been well received. We engage students through creative research, critical thinking, art, discussion and even song-making. We offer a unique opportunity for students to learn from the wide range of artefacts, written material, textiles, films and music that relate to West Africa in ‘word, symbol and song’.

DSC01864 (Credit Tony Antoniou)
View of the first section of the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, which illustrates the Mali empire, founded in the 13th century. © Tony Antoniou

West Africa historically, and today, plays an integral role in understanding the forces that shaped and continue to shape the world we live in, yet many of the students we have worked with appear to have little knowledge of the topic. At the start of one session recently, eight-year-old children came out with statements such as ‘All Africans are poor’ and ‘They were all slaves’. The exhibition workshops provide a really important platform for open and honest discussions to explore and challenge stereotypes.

The group lined up for a photo with the mega-exhibition poster behind them.

In my view, the importance of this inspiring exhibition as a source of learning for children and adults of all ages cannot be overstated. It is expansive as well as beautifully detailed, celebratory in history and culture, and a joy to work with. My thanks to the curators and all The 100 Black Men of London who gladdened my heart and brought tears to my eyes, even though they did not know I was watching them.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song continues until 16 February 2016. For more information on the British Library’s learning programme and workshops accompanying the exhibition, visit

Visit to gain insights into West Africa’s fascinating heritage through unique collection items and teaching resources.

Jean Campbell
Workshop Leader, British Library Learning Team Ccownwork