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

16 September 2014

One-day Symposium: British Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Research

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One day symposium: British Library Persian Manuscripts: Collections and Research
British Library Conference Centre, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
Friday, 31 October 2014, 9.30-18.00

Or_2265_f066v_1000Khusraw and Shirin listen to stories told by Shirin's handmaidens. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting in Safavid Tabriz style c 1540s,  ascribed to Aqa Mirak (British Library Or.2265, f. 66v)

The British Library is holding a one-day symposium on the theme of digitisation and new research on its collection of Persian manuscripts, one of the most significant in the world in both size and importance. It is currently mid-way through a partnership project with the Iran Heritage Foundation and other supporters to convert catalogue records for Persian manuscripts into digital format as well as to digitise selected items from the Library’s vast collection with a view to making the data freely accessible online to readers worldwide. The main underlying objectives are to aid scholarship on the cultures and history of the Islamicate and Persianate world, and to help preserve this delicate material for posterity. Although only a small number of manuscripts have been digitised to date, the range is expected to grow over the coming years thanks to continued public and private funding.

Progress so far has already facilitated some exciting developments and discoveries. Join project members and scholars to explore the Library's Persian collections and find out more about recent research.


Booking will be available from Monday 22 September from British Library Events . Tickets include a light lunch and refreshments and are priced at £15 (£10 concessions).


Dr Sâqib Bâburî, British Library
Two new sources for the study of Muḥammad Vājid ʿAlī Shāh in the William Irvine Collection

Dr Bruno De Nicola, University of St Andrews
Rashīd al-Dīn’s World History: manuscripts of Jāmi‘ al-tavārīkh in the British Library

Dr Walter N. Hakala, University at Buffalo, SUNY (USA)
Minimum taxable knowledge: the niṣāb genre of multilingual vocabularies in verse

Jeremiah Losty, British Library (Emeritus)
The artists of James Skinner’s Tashrīḥ al-Aqvām (British Library Add. 27255)

Dr Stephan Popp, University of Vienna
Horoscopes as propaganda under Akbar and Shāh Jahān

Dr Katharine Schofield, King’s College, London
The confluence of two oceans: Hindustani music in the British Library Persian collections

Dr Emily Shovelton, Independent Scholar
Margins of the Divine: the Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan  (British Library Add. 27261)

Dr Eleanor Sims, Editor of Islamic Art and Independent Scholar
More from Mashhad? A recently re-discovered illustrated Shahnama manuscript of the 17th century

Dr Muhammad Isa Waley, British Library
Niẓāmī through Digital Eyes: Observations on masterworks in the British Library


For further information: contact Dr. Sâqib Bâburî (

11 September 2014

Fifty more Malay manuscripts to be digitised

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Following the successful completion of the first year of our Malay manuscripts digitisation project – funded by William and Judith Bollinger, and undertaken in collaboration with the National Library of Singapore – we are pleased to announce that photography has commenced for the second year of the project. This year we will be digitising 53 manuscripts mainly from the collections of the India Office Library, as well as a few recent acquisitions. All these manuscripts are listed on our Digital Access to Malay Manuscripts project page.

Sumatra (in yellow) and part of the Malay peninsula (in green) and Java (in red). From a maritime atlas for navigating from the Cape of Good Hope to the Far East. Amsterdam, 1722. British Library, Maps.C.12. f.3, 27  noc

Among the highlights to be digitised this year are the Adat Aceh (MSS Malay B.11), the exceptionally important compendium of port regulations and court procedures from 17th-century Aceh, and a copy of the Undang-undang Aceh, a legal digest from Aceh (MSS Malay D.12). Scholars of indigenous healing techniques will be particularly interested in a work from the court of Pontianak in western Kalimantan, entitled Kitab obat-obat dan azimat, ‘Book of medicines and charms’ (MSS Malay B.15), described as ‘The Malay Materia Medica, from the practice of Tama, Physician to the royal household of His Majesty of Pontiana’, copied on 17 May 1813.

First page of the Kitab obat-obat dan azimat, containing a charm to stop children crying (azimat budak jangan menangis), Pontianak, 1813. MSS Malay B.15, f.1v.  noc

There is a rich corpus of literary works, both in prose (hikayat) and narrative verse (syair), mostly collected by John Leyden in Penang and Melaka. Many of these manuscripts are dated, and were written in Kedah, Penang or Melaka between 1804 and 1811 by scribes known to have worked for the British, including Muhammad Kasim, Ismail, Ibrahim, who was Raffles’s chief secretary, and his brother Ahmad Rijaluddin. In a few cases the manuscripts to be photographed this year contain the same texts as in those already digitised last year such as Hikayat Dewa Mandu (MSS Malay D.1), Hikayat Hang Tuah (MSS Malay B.1) and Hikayat Ular Nangkawang (MSS Malay A.1), allowing textual comparisons to be made. Some manuscripts bear finely illuminated frames around the opening pages.

Hikayat Inderaputera. The red and black decorative motifs suggest a Minangkabau origin for this manuscript, believed to date from around 1821. British Library, MSS Malay B.14, ff.1r, 2r [The MS has been mis-bound, and in the image above the two illuminated pages have been digitially reunited to show how they would originally have appeared across two facing pages.]  noc

The broad linguistic and epigraphic reach of the Malay world is reflected in three manuscripts from south Sumatra written in variants of the pre-Islamic incung script of Indic origin, also called ka-ga-nga script after its first three letters. A manuscript written on folded tree bark contains the Syair Perahu (MSS Malay A.2) in Malay in incung script, and possibly dates from the 18th century. Surat pantun cara Lampung (MSS Malay A.4) is a paper manuscript which contains parallel columns of Malay pantun and quatrains called wayak in Lampung language and script. A third manuscript in incung script is a tembai or myth of origin, written on strips of bamboo (MSS Malay D.11).

Syair Perahu, first few lines of a manuscript in Malay in incung script from south Sumatra, written on folded treebark. MSS Malay A.2, f.a 1 (detail).  noc

Also to be digitised this year are a number of Malay vocabulary lists, mostly collected by servants of the East India Company including Leyden and Raffles. Perhaps most interesting are the working materials of Thomas Bowrey, author of the first original Malay-English dictionary. Alongside his notebooks are also held page proofs for A dictionary English and Malayo, Malayo and English (London, 1701), together with hand-written annotations by Thomas Hyde, professor of Arabic at Oxford, who appears to have helped Bowrey with the Jawi script elements (MSS Eur A 33).

The first lines from a vocabulary of Malay, Javanese and Madurese, arranged not alphabetically but by subject, starting with the concept of God and creation (Tuhan, ketuhanan, kejadian) and other-worldly creatures (dewa, hantu, gergasi, raksasa). This manuscript bears the bookplate of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. MSS Malay A.3, f.3v (detail).  noc

Manuscripts which have already been digitised are highlighted above in blue. All the other manuscripts mentioned will be digitised in the course of the coming months.


M.C.Ricklefs & P.Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia


08 September 2014

The original Japanese Moon Princess

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The Mid-Autumn Festival, which falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (中秋節Zhong qiu jie), has always been a very popular custom in China. People celebrate by going out at night to view the moon and eat moon cakes, and hence the festival is also known as the Moon Festival.

The ‘Fifteenth Night’ (十五夜Jūgoya) festival was introduced from China to Japan sometime during the 8th century. People served special sweets and enjoyed eating them while gazing at the moon, regarding the ‘mid-autumn moon’ (中秋の名月Chūshū no meigetsu) as the day that the Moon Princess returned to the moon. This Moon Princess should not be confused with the ‘Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon’(美少女戦士セーラームーン)or  Princess Serenity known from modern anime.  The original Japanese Moon Princess was in fact Princess Kaguya (かぐや姫), the heroine of ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’(竹取物語Taketori monogatari).

Princess Kaguya and the mid-autumn moon. ‘The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’ (繪入竹とり物語, Eiri Taketori monogatari), printed book, prob. 18th century. British Library, 16055.c.31.  noc

It is unclear exactly when the story of Princess Kaguya came into existence. Researchers have identified several notable courtiers of the late 7th century upon whom the five suitors for the hand of Princess Kaguya were based. A picture scroll version of Taketori monogatari was also famously mentioned in chapter 17 of ‘The Tale of the Genji’ (源氏物語Genji monogatari), in a scene at the Imperial Court where an intellectual contest was held to compare illustrated stories. The participants, divided into two teams, competed by comparing two stories and discussing which one possessed more literary merit and which composition harmonised better with the pictures. One of stories mentioned was Taketori monogatari.

Chapter 17 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba) , manuscript, mid-17th century. British Library, Or.1278, f.18.  noc

Genji monogatari is thought to have been written by Murasaki Shikibu(紫式部), who was a lady-in- waiting at the court of the Empress Shōshi (藤原彰子) in 11th century Japan. Consequently, it can be assumed that the story line of Taketori monogatari had come into existence sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries, and that by the time of Genji monogatari, it was already one of the more widely known folktales.

Princess Kaguya was discovered as a new-born baby in a shining bamboo in a bamboo forest by an elderly bamboo cutter. He took the baby home and brought her up with his wife as their own child. The baby grew up very quickly and became an extremely beautiful woman just three months after her discovery. Although the elderly couple knew that she was not a normal child, they were so fond of her that they wanted her to marry a husband fitting to one of her beauty. However, she was actually the Princess of the Moon and was a visitor to the earth for only for a short while. In the end, she had to return to the moon and left the heart-broken couple and several suitors behind.

Princess Kaguya and one of her suitors. 'The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter' ( 繪入竹とり物語, Eiri Taketori monogatari) [18th century edition], printed book, prob. 18th century. British Library, 16055.c.31.  noc

The story of Princess Kaguya can be interpreted in many ways. Some see the story as a fable, the failed proposals to Princess Kaguya of the five suitors being a veiled condemnation of political corruption at the court. The moon was represented as a pure land, from which Princess Kaguya had been exiled as a punishment. The earth is presented as a centre of political intrigues, thus representing the court.

However, the most popular interpretation sees the story as a prototype of a science fiction story about aliens from space. Princess Kaguya was actually the Moon Princess, and therefore an alien. She had done something wrong on the moon, and had to serve her term on earth as if serving an open prison sentence. When she had completed her time on earth, her people came from the moon in a spaceship and took her back home. It is fascinating to discover such an early depiction of alien visitors in the Japanese literary tradition.

Princess Kaguya returns to the moon. 'The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (繪入竹とり物語, Eiri Taketori monogatari), printed book, prob. 18th century. British Library, 16055.c.31.  noc

This year, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on the 8th September. Let’s enjoy our moon cakes, while thinking of the Moon Princess.

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese section