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

02 October 2015

The ‘Blood Moon’ in a Thai manuscript

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On Monday 28 September the media was full of reports and images of the so-called ‘blood moon’ seen in the early hours, caused by a full lunar eclipse.

This phenomenon was also described in a nineteenth-century Thai manuscript held in the British Library, Or.15760, probably dating from the time of King Rama IV (also known as King Mongkut) of Siam, who reigned from 1851 to 1868.  Rama IV was a passionate astronomer and astrologer, who actually died after catching malaria during an excursion to southern Thailand to watch a total solar eclipse that he had accurately predicted. In 2003, a newly discovered asteroid, 151834 Mongkut, was named in honour of King Rama IV and his contributions to astronomy.

In our manuscript, two types of ‘red moons’ are illustrated at the top of folio 25, together with a warning that following the occurrence of such a moon three bad things might happen: the price of rice may increase, robberies may take place, and there is even the prospect of war! The entire population, including governors and Brahmins (learned men) could suffer great hardship.

The manuscript, which contains illustrations together with astrological interpretations of various shapes of the sun, moon, planets, and clouds, has been fully digitised and can be viewed online here.  

Blood moon or_15760_f025r
Illustrations of possible appearances of the moon. Tamra phichai songkhram (Divination manual for the prediction of wars and conflicts). British Library, Or.15760, f.25  noc

Further reading

Pattaratorn Chiraprawati, Divination au Royaume de Siam – le corps, la guerre, le destin. Paris and Geneva: Presses Universitaires de France, Fondation Martin Bodmer, 2011

Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian  ccownwork
With thanks to Thanyarat Apiwong for help with the translation

30 September 2015

An Artist’s Journey: Inspired by Persian Manuscripts

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Today's guest post is by London-based Anita Chowdry, a visual artist, academic researcher and educator, with a long and varied practice that spans three decades. Her current sphere of interests includes an holistic approach to maths, geometry, mechanics and the history of philosophy and technology, and the impact of these disciplines on the development of our aesthetic sensibilities. 

A major area of Anita’s practical research is about painting and illumination in the book arts of the Middle East and India. As a highly skilled practitioner, Anita began her formative training in this genre in 1992 with an hereditary Rajput master in Rajasthan, India, and went on to continue her research at  some of London’s major museum collections. She lectures and runs specialist workshops on the subject at major institutions in Britain and abroad. Alongside her research interests Anita runs a successful creative practice, with disciplines ranging from manuscript illumination techniques to large scale sculptural installations.

Anita's work can be viewed on her website. She also posts regularly on her blog.

Looking at manuscripts in the British Library

My first experience of enjoying an elite manuscript close-up was in 1998, in the conservation studios of what were then the Oriental and India Office Collections at Orbit House Blackfriars, before the collection was moved to its current home at St. Pancras. A senior conservator, the late John Holmes, invited me to the studio to look at the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami, Or.12208. I already owned and enjoyed Barbara Brend’s illustrated monograph on the manuscript, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami (British Library, 1995), but nothing can prepare you for the sheer sensuous pleasure of experiencing such a manuscript at first hand. Such was my elation at the time that I wrote extensively about it in my sketchbook: “It is one of the most beautiful and inspiring things I have ever seen... my first reaction is to the quality of the paper... exquisitely fine and tinted brown, burnished till it shines like silk...and the perfect line rulings – lamp-black filled with the palest malachite or shining gold – that divide the columns of beautiful Nastaʻliq script...”.

An illuminated chapter-heading from the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Nizami, copied between 1593 and 1595, with two mythical birds (simorghs) (Or.12208, f. 285v)

The manuscript contains some of the finest examples of early Mughal illustration, dense and animated in the distinctive fusion style of Akbar’s workshops, but what caught my imagination most were the supplementary marginal designs, which along with passages of formal illumination have only recently begun to be the subject of serious academic study.

Another comparably sumptuous copy of Nizami's Khamsa, Or.2265, with visionary illustrations that express a vibrant literary heritage, was produced some years earlier in the workshops of the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (ruled 1524-76). Both manuscripts are now freely available as high resolution digital manuscripts (click on the hyperlinks to get to the digitised images), a wonderfully useful resource for artists and researchers because you can zoom in to study their details at leisure.

Detail of “the Prophet’s ascent” attributable to Sultan Muhammad, part of Shah Tahmasp’s Khamsa of Nizami (Or.2265, f. 195r)

In the image above the detail of the exquisitely painted other-worldly entities (peris) amongst swirling clouds exemplifies the qualities that make these manuscripts such an enduring source of inspiration to me.  The illustration is like sublime music or mathematics, in which classic design elements like the Chinese strap-clouds are given free expression without ever compromising their formal structure of expanding and diminishing reciprocal curves. Passages of visionary illustration like this are closely linked to the masterful marginal decorations that enrich every page of both manuscripts.

Detail of marginal design with formalized clouds, simorghs and dragons from Shah Tahmasp’s Khamsa of Nizami  (Or.2265 f. 42r)

Most of the margins are of the Shekari or hunting genre, executed in 24 carat gold pigment, with some details picked out in a greenish-gold alloy, or in silver, which has long since patinated to black. They feature intertwining vignettes of real and fantastic beasts interacting in rocky and jungle landscapes: the Persian Phoenix or Simorgh, a fabulous oversized bird with streaming tail-fathers, engaged in having altercations with dragons; snow-leopards in every conceivable contortion stalking wild goats, flocks of cranes performing aerobatics amongst Chinese strap-clouds, and some rather carnivorous-looking bovines snarling at predators. These enchanted worlds, where myth merges with the real, seem to have been created loosely and spontaneously, with compositions that flow like poetry – later schools of illumination never quite achieved the same fluency, and look stilted by comparison. 

Following my formative years in the early ‘90s as a friend and pupil of a master painter in India, the late “Bannu”, who had generously shown me many of his hereditary secrets in miniature painting and the use and preparation of traditional mineral pigments, my experiences with these great manuscripts inspired me to refine my technique and to develop a light fluid hand and sense of movement in my work. A commission from a passionately creative collector provided me with an opportunity to explore illuminated and border elements as a detached, contemplative composition in the painting below.

Nautilus copy_1500
Nautilus commissioned by Lionel de Rothschild, 2008. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

Geometry is at the core of most illuminated design – and my reference to the Fibonacci spiral in the work is intentionally unequivocal. Taking the concept of natural geometry a step further, it struck me that in Sultan Muhammad’s visionary clouds and in his distinctive treatment of elements such as rocks, flames, and magical beasts, he worked with an intuitive sense of fractal geometry, some four hundred years before Benoit Mandelbrot’s ground-breaking realization of its existence as a mathematical entity. This inspired me to experiment with pure shapes digitally generated in the Mandelbrot and Julia Sets, in the context of classical Persian design. The images below are from a series of brush drawings exploring this concept.

Julia Dragons_1250
Illuminated Julia Dragons
– hand rendered elements from the Julia set masquerading as dragons and strap-clouds. Private collection of Najma Kazi. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

Can I take you there? (Demon on a rickshaw bound for the Mandelbrot set), brush drawing with pigment and gold. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

To my mind, there is an interesting correlation between the ambiguous imagery of fractals, and the many layers of meaning in the verses of Persian literature. Both hover somewhere beyond the realm of everyday experience, hinting at a partial existence in some other dimension. I am particularly drawn towards the mythical entities that punctuate the imagery in Persian manuscripts, because according to tradition, the dragons, demons and angels depicted as adjuncts to the texts exist on elemental planes unseen by humans. They were created by God out of “smokeless fire” (Qur'an, Sura 15:27) to exist in a hidden world parallel to ours. 

My current preoccupation is with another sublime manuscript in the British Library’s oriental collections, Or.11846, created in Shiraz in the fifteenth century for the Turcoman prince Pir Budaq. The opening carpet pages display virtuoso rigour in design and execution which paradoxically creates an overall impression of quirky other-worldliness. The Chinese strap-clouds that undulate around the inner border are fairly restrained, but they do display a certain eccentricity, as does the intricate web of arabesques that covers all available space against a rich lapis lazuli ground. The energy and tension of this work has haunted me since I first saw it.

CanvasDivan of Hafez Saʻd copied for Pir Budaq, 1459 (Or.11846, detail of f. 1v)

My initial approach is to try to understand the underlying structure of the design, and the distinctive “handwriting” with which the elements are drawn. Untitled-2
Sketchbook studies of design structure in opening pages of Or.11846. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

The next stage is to draft out the design, and to start blocking in the gold, followed by the other colours, in what I think is the same sequence as that used by the original master. This process is not about slavish copying, but about learning empirically from the source. Part of the journey is to try to analyse and prepare the mineral colours to a comparable quality, and to gain an intuitive sense of the original intention of the design.

Starting work on the Pir Budaqi illumination. ⓒ Anita Chowdry

I do not know how exactly this work will develop or where this journey will take me. I have a sense that it wants to expand into another dimension, breaking out of the confines of its rigid structure. For me, the whole point of being an artist is to be on a continuous voyage of discovery, and to let the things that inspire you carry you along on their own momentum. I believe that it is through connections such as this that masterpieces of manuscript art transcend their original context and continue to enrich our experience today.

Anita Chowdry, Artist


25 September 2015

The Chakrabongse collection of Thai royal letters (Or.15749)

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The British Library received the Chakrabongse Collection of Thai Royal Letters as a donation from M.R. Narisa Chakrabongse, granddaughter of Prince Chakrabongse, in 2002. The letters were written by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and two of his sons, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) and Prince Chakrabongse, between 1896 and 1915. They cover a range of personal and political topics, including descriptions of several European and Asian countries during that period, unique eye-witness reports of certain political events in Europe, matters relating to Prince Chakrabongse’s education and the education of other Thai royals in European countries, as well as evidence of the close relationship between King Chulalongkorn and Prince Chakrabongse. The acquisition was managed by Henry Ginsburg, who was at that time Curator of the Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections at the British Library.

Chakrabongse or.15749!13.7_f001r
King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) reveals on 15.6.1910 details of a request from the French ambassador in Bangkok: "The French ambassador has written that a Yuan [Vietnamese], whom we expelled from Bangkok, has come back to Bangkok as the bearer of a letter from the rebels in Vietnam, and that he is planning to send weapons via Laos. He asks that we capture him and expel him... We have an obligation to help the French in this matter..." (translation by Henry Ginsburg). British Library, Or.15749/13.7, f. 1  noc

His Royal Highness Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanadh, Prince of Bisnulok, was born on 3 March 1883, as the 40th child of His Majesty King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and 4th child of Her Majesty Queen Sri Bajarindra.  He was initially educated in the Royal Palace in Bangkok, then sent to England for further study at the age of 13. During King Chulalongkorn's visit to Russia in 1897, Nicolas II, last Emperor of Russia and a close friend of King Rama V, invited the king to send a son to be educated in Russia, under the care of Nicolas II himself.  Prince Chakrabongse, who had been studying in England for almost two years, was chosen and moved on to St Petersburg to study military science (1898-1912?).  After finishing his studies, he became a Colonel in the Hussar Regiment of Nicholas II.

Chakrabongse or.15749!8.12_f003r
Prince Chakrabongse describes the situation in St Petersburg, dated 6.11.1905: "It can be called a revolution but of a new kind, not like the French revolution. As I wrote before, there is a new group of people, the ‘intellectuals’ asking for a parliament, asking for the workers’ rights and strikes, but the aristocracy do not want a parliament... The intellectuals are more determined, the government cannot suppress them because most people support the intellectuals. On 17 August the parliament was allowed but only to persons trusted by the government, i.e. rich people, professionals, but no students or workers... So they continue with disruptions, demanding elections and as in every city of Europe guarantees of personal freedom, freedom of speech, of conscience, of meeting, of press."(translation by Henry Ginsburg). British Library, Or.15749/8.12, f. 5  noc

After his return to Thailand, Prince Chakrabongse initiated the idea of establishing a flying unit in the Thai Army and set up the Aviation Section in the Directorate of Engineering in 1913. During World War I, he was the commander in charge of war planes and established the Volunteer Force that was sending Thai soldiers to help the European Allies under the royal command of King Rama VI. In 1919, aircraft were used for postal purposes for the first time in Thailand. Today, Prince Chakrabongse is still respected as the “Father of the Royal Thai Air Force”.

In 1906 in Constantinople, Prince Chakrabongse married Mom Catherine Chakrabongse Na Ayutthaya, a Russian of Ukrainian descent (maiden name Ekaterina Desnitskaya).  Their only child was H.R.H. Prince Chula Chakrabongse. Prince Chakrabongse died in 1920 at the age of 37.

Chakrabongse or.15749!14.12_f001r
Prince Chakrabongse writes to his brother, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), about his impressions during a trip to Saigon on 21.4.1912: "The centre of the city is completely French, with large buildings, the shops lit up at night by electricity, it was very elegant. There are French cafes everywhere, the roads are lined with trees and as the trees are already large it is shady and cool to the eye, and there are lots of parks. Municipal water which is clean and clear flows everywhere. There are large ships and European packet boats moored only on one side of the water, then the native city around it, the Yuan live in huts and in Chinese row houses.... Around Saigon and in all Cochinchina there are paved roads going everywhere.  It is very easy to drive here, as quickly as in Europe, which is admirable and astonishing in Cochinchina. Believe me, the French have spent a lot of money here." (translation by Henry Ginsburg). British Library, Or.15749/14.12, f. 1  noc

At the time of his unexpected death in 2007, Henry Ginsburg had already begun to catalogue and describe the letters, and he left behind an electronic text document with a list of shelfmarks and more or less detailed descriptions of many of the letters. For some selected letters he also had prepared a romanised transcription and translations of parts of their contents.

Almost all the letters in the collection, written on European paper, are in good condition. In order to make a decision on an appropriate storage solution several aspects had to be taken into consideration, including the safety and security of the collection, convenient reader access, technical aspects of order and supply, aesthetic aspects, and cost. It was decided to store each letter in a custom-made case, which was the most costly option, but at the same time the safest option in terms of conservation and security.  

At the beginning of 2008, a decision was made that the Chakrabongse Collection should be digitised as part of the British Library’s Thai Manuscripts Digitisation Project, which was funded by the government of Thailand through the Royal Thai Embassy in London. In this project, the entire Chakrabongse Collection and over fifty Thai manuscripts from the Library’s collection were digitised and made available freely on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts webpage, enabling easy and comfortable access at any time to this rare archival material. This initiative is highly valued not only by historians and the wider research community but also by the Thai public, as the letters give insight into the relationship between King Chulalongkorn and his children as well as political issues at the time the letters were written. To access the digitised letters from the Chakrabongse Archive, the keyword “Chakrabongse” should be inserted in the Quick Search field on the Digitised Manuscripts webpage.     

Chakrabongse book cover
The book Katya and the Prince of Siam by Eileen Hunter and Narisa Chakrabongse  provides a detailed insight into the life of Prince Chakrabongse and his family.

Further reading

Chula Chakrabongse, Prince, Lords of life: a history of the kings of Thailand. Bangkok: DD Books, 1982 (3rd ed.)
Hunter, Eileen with Narisa Chakrabongse, Katya and the Prince of Siam. Bangkok: River Books, 1994
Narisa Chakrabongse and Paisarn Piamattawat, A pictorial record of the Fifth Reign. Bangkok: River Books, 1992

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