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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

18 October 2014

A royal Malay letter from Ternate

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In 1579 Francis Drake sailed into Ternate harbour during his circumnavigation of the globe. This was the first official visit by an Englishman to the islands of what is now Indonesia.  The visit appears to have been a diplomatic success, and Drake brought back a letter to Queen Elizabeth and a gold ring.  However the follow-up was less than satisfactory from the Ternate point of view, for it was not until 1605 that the next English ships arrived in Ternate, captained by Henry Middleton. Middleton carried back to London a letter to James I from Sultan Said Syah (held today in the National Archives, SP 102/4/24) in which the sultan noted acerbically that in the over twenty years that had passed since Drake’s visit, he had sired eleven children, without receiving any further overtures of friendship from England  (dalam kerajaan itu sebellas anak beta, itu pun tiada jua sesuatu khabar Inggliterra hendak berkasih-kasihan Ingglitera dengan orang Maluku). Hardly surprisingly, the sultan refused the English permission to trade in Ternate, citing his alliance with the Dutch (Gallop 2003: 413-418).

Ilhas de Maluco, 'The islands of the Moluccas', showing from left to right the islands of Hiri, Ternate, Maitara, Tidore, Mare and Makian, with an interesting treatment of perspective which emphasises the height of the volcanoes which rise from the sea to form each of the islands. Livro do Estado da India Oriental, by Pedro Barreto de Resende, 1646. British Library, Sloane MS 197, ff.395v-396r.  noc

Despite such ups and down, over the next three centuries diplomatic channels of communication between Ternate and Britain remained open, as reflected in an occasional series of royal letters preserved in various repositories.  Presented here is a newly-digitised letter in Malay from Sultan Kaicil Patra Muhammad Yasin of Ternate (r.1801-1807) to the British Commissioner in Ambon in the central Moluccas, dated 26 Zulhijah 1216 (19 April 1802) (Add.18141, f.2r).  At that time the Commissioner was Col. J. Oliver, but the letter may have been intended for his predecessor, Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar (1776-1830) - British commercial Resident of Ambon from the late 1790s until 1801 and subsequently Lieutenant-Governor of Penang from 1804-1805 and first Governor of Mauritius from 1810 to 1823 - for the letter was presented to the British Museum in 1850 by his son, Sir Walter Minto Farquhar (who had evidently been named after the oldest son of Lord Minto, Governor-General of India).  In this letter, the Sultan informs the Commissioner that a joint British-Ternatan force had been despatched to Halmahera to settle a disturbance in Sawu provoked by the kingdom of Jailolo (kuku Jailolo dengan manisnya membujuk negeri Sawu, maka berdiri sama2 menunjuk berani, ‘sweet-talking Jailolo has managed to dig its nails into Sawu, and now they’re both acting up’).

Letter in Malay from Sultan Muhammad Yasin of Ternate to the British Commissioner in Ambon, 1802. British Library, Add. 18141, f.2r.  noc

The letter is written in superb calligraphy, confident and stylish, by a master of the craft who makes good use of the thick and thin edges of the nib of the pen, as particularly evident in the first line, a detail of which is shown below.  The hand in this letter shares some characteristics with other royal letters from the Moluccas, in particular the sweeping, cursive style of writing which greatly exaggerates the tails of letters. One of the most characteristic letter forms is ya or medial or final ha (see the word maha below), both of which are usually written as two convex arcs joined at the lower tip, like an elongated curved v tipped towards the right, while also notable is the pyramidal (or mountain-like?) presentation of the sultan’s name in the first line shown here.
Detail of part of the first line of the letter, reading 'Wherefore His Majesty the Sultan of Ternate ...' (Bahwa  paduka  seri  maha  yang  tuan sultan  Ternate al-buldan taj ...).  The scribe has taken a very cavalier and almost playful approach to certain letters, such as the dal (d) of paduka, and the convoluted tail of nga in the word yang.

Further reading:

A.T. Gallop, 'Seventeenth-century Indonesian letters in the Public Record Office', Indonesia and Malay World, vol.31, no.91 (2003), pp. 412-439.

The full Malay text of the letter shown here can be read in the catalogue entry for Add.18141, f.2r.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

13 October 2014

Indian Music in the Persian Collections: the Javahir al-Musiqat-i Muhammadi (Or.12857). Part 2

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The second of two posts on the Bijapur manuscript Javāhir al-mūsīqāt, c.1570/c.1630 by guest blogger Katherine Butler Schofield of King’s College London. This manuscript has now been digitised and is available to read online on British Library Digitised Manuscripts. Follow the links below to go directly to the relevant folios.

This manuscript has now been digitised and is available to read online on British Library Digitised Manuscripts. Follow the links below to go directly to the relevant folios. - See more at:

The replacement frontispiece of the Javāhir al-Mūsīqāt-i Muḥammadī, reused from elsewhere. (British Library Or.12857, f. 1v)

In my last post, I concluded that Shaikh ‘Abd al-Karim’s musical masterwork, the Javāhir al-Mūsīqāt-i Muḥammadī, is a multilingual palimpsest of three treatises: a translation c. 1570 of the 13th-century Sanskrit Saṅgītaratnākara into 16th-century Dakhni, probably for ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah of Bijapur (r.1558-80), which was split apart and its paintings reused by Shaikh ‘Abd al-Karim to form the central thread of a more elaborate 17th-century Persian translation dedicated to ‘Ali’s great-nephew, Muhammad ‘Adil Shah (r.1626-56). This unique work is culturally significant for several reasons. For one thing, when placed in wider geographical context it testifies to a significant vernacularisation of Sanskrit music theory in the 16th century, preceding by nearly a century its recodification in Persian under the Mughals (see Brown below).

Deskar, the fourth rāginī of Megh (British Library Or.12857, f. 119r)

A number of other noteworthy vernacular music treatises made their appearance in this century: e.g. a miniature Awadhi verse treatise inserted into Qutban’s Sufi romance the Mṛgāvatī (1503) produced in Jaunpur (Behl, pp. 131-133); a Braj rāgamālā called the Mānakutūhala, traditionally attributed to Raja Man Singh of Gwalior (d.1516)[1]. ; and a Marathi translation of the Saṅgītaratnākara with paintings of very similar style and date to the Jawāhir (Zebrowski, pp. 60-4). The production of a substantial Dakhni recension of the Saṅgītaratnākara in Bijapur thus confirms a growing picture of a vernacularising 16th century in north and central India’s independent courts.

But a major reason this work is of importance to music and cultural history is Shaikh ‘Abd al-Karim’s systematic integration of ideas from the Islamicate sciences about the power of sound and its effects in human affairs into a work of Indic musicology. We already know from work done on the great astrological treatise written in Persian for ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah, the Nujum al-‘ulūm (1570) – whose paintings are used to date the Jawāhir’s – that ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah, and later Ibrahim ʻAdil Shah II (r.1580-1626), freely mixed Hindu and Muslim symbology and theories of supernatural power, including those associated with music, and incorporated them into their courtly ideologies (see Flatt; Leach, v.2, pp. 819-89; Hutton, pp. 51-2 and fig. 2.14; Zebrowski, pp. 60-4).

Asavari, the second rāginī of Malkausik (British Library Or.12857, f. 102r)

Although Muhammad ʻAdil Shah is sometimes characterised as more narrowly orthodox, this generous attitude remains primary in Shaikh ‘Abd al-Karim’s vision. Strikingly, with respect to music’s origin myths and explanations of its power to regulate the universe, he treats the philosophies of “ ‘Arabia, ‘Ajam and Hind” as effectively equal in truth value (f. 5v).

More important, though, is his systematic appropriation of the Indian rāgas into the Greco-Islamicate system of humoral medicine known as Unani ṭibb. Every rāga and rāginī in the Indic system is supposed to have a specific effect on the listener’s psychological state, their physical wellbeing, or indeed on the wider natural world. Rāginī Dhanashri, for example, is supposed to evoke feelings of loss and longing caused by the absent beloved. Rāg Megh, one of the six main rāgas, has the power to bring the monsoon rains; the coming of the rains is furthermore associated with the joy of union with the beloved.

Rag Megh, the third rāga (British Library Or.12857, f. 112v)

In Shaikh ‘Abd al-Karim’s rāgamālā he systematically attributes the essential emotional flavour of every rāga to one of the four elements of Islamicate natural sciences – fire, earth, air and water. He furthermore describes the effect of each of the four kinds of rāga on the physical and mental state of the listener in terms borrowed from Sufi teaching and ethical literature (akhlāq): fiery rāgas ignite passionate love (‘ishq) in the listener’s heart; earthy rāgas enlighten the listener with the mystical knowledge (‘irfān) of their true selves; airy rāgas overwhelm the listener with longing for the absent beloved (firāq); and watery rāgas annhilate the listener in union (viṣal) with the great Existence (ff. 66v-8r). 

The iconography of rāgamālā paintings is supposed to intensify and enrich the rāgas’ affective associations using visual and imaginative rather than aural means. The c.1570 rāgamālā paintings of the Javāhir belong to a time when rāga-rāginī sets were clearly not yet standardised. Although it uses the same six rāgas as the contemporaneous “Painters system” – Bhairav, Hindol, Megh, Malkausik, Shri and Dipak – I have not before encountered its particular configuration of rāginīs. In addition, the classic iconography we are accustomed to was clearly not yet settled. Some rāgas had already acquired their standard form. Rag Megh, for example, is of course watery in essence, and listening to it engenders loving union; singing this rāga may cause clouds to gather in the heavens or rain to fall, powerful lightening to strike and frogs to start croaking. In the rāgamālā text and painting Megh is depicted as a dark-skinned lord dressed in green and riding a black buck, with the monsoon rainclouds gathering above his head and two pied cuckoos in the background.  Ragini Dhanashri, on the other hand, is not depicted in her now customary form: a woman consumed with longing, gazing at a portrait of her absent beloved as she is consoled by her girlfriends.  The mood of viraha or firāq is nonetheless sustained in the Javāhir pictorially by Dhanashri’s loose dishevelled hair, her chin resting disconsolately on her hand as she sits on a bed waiting for her lover’s return. And Shaikh ‘Abd al-Karim makes it explicit in the Persian text: Dhanashri is an airy rāginī, and thus listening to her overwhelms the listener with longing (ff. 99r-100r).  
Dhanashri, the first rāginī of Malkausik (British Library Or.12857, f. 100r)

In this way the rāgas and their rich aesthetic and affective powers are here recruited to the service of Sufi devotion and appropriated as medicinal and supernatural formulae, thus giving excellent grounds for a Muslim ruler like Muhammad ‘Adil Shah to use the rāgas in regulating and maintaining order in the body politic. It is important to note that the elemental associations of the Javāhir rāga descriptions are not in the Dakhni text. Their relation to the paintings is thus an early- to mid- 17th-century interpretation, undertaken in a more Persianate universe. I thus want to speculate in conclusion about the impact this text, and perhaps other Bijapuri treatises like it, now lost, had on the Mughal recodification of śastric music theory in Persian during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb ‘Alamgir (1658-1707) (see Schofield below).

The evidence is circumstantial, but cumulative and therefore tantalising. From the first brief Mughal formulation of saṅgītaśāstra in Persian, Abuʼl-Fazl’s chapter on saṅgīt in the Ā’īn-i Akbarī (1593),  Mughal music theorists all venerated the south and especially the Deccan as the arbiter of authority in Indian music.  Political and cultural emissaries were sent regularly between the Mughal and Bijapur courts from the time of ‘Ali ‘Adil Shah, and in the first decades of the 17th century the two powers came into direct conflict, and then more peaceful accommodation, over the collapse of the Nizam Shahi state of Ahmadnagar.  Akbar and Jahangir certainly knew of Ibrahim ‘Adil Shah’s musical prowess; Jahangir even made note of Ibrahim’s famous song collection, the Kitāb-i nauras, in his memoir, and welcomed one of his musicians to the Mughal court.  And Ibrahim in turn was fascinated by Akbar’s great musician Tansen and the quality of Akbar’s relationship with him. 

What, then, of Muhammad ‘Adil Shah and his connections with his exact Mughal contemporary Shah Jahan (r.1628-58) and his Deccan viceroy Aurangzeb, the future emperor ‘Alamgir? Shaikh ‘Abd al-Karim portrays Muhammad ‘Adil Shah as a great lover and connoisseur of music  – and to my knowledge, the Javāhir is the earliest extant full-scale Persian work of Indian musicology from the Mughal period. Why write it in Persian not Dakhni? We know that the miniature paintings of Muhammad ‘Adil Shah’s reign draw to an unprecedented extent on Mughal inspiration, which included importing Mughal artists.  Did Shaikh ‘Abd al-Karim’s choice to write a great treatise in Persian similarly reflect his patron’s aspirations to Mughal recognition, in a subject in which Bijapur was already renowned as the authority? Conversely, what impact did the Javāhir’s unapologetic mixing of Indic musical science with Islamicate natural and esoteric sciences and mystical and ethical teaching have on the explosion of music theory in Persian at ‘Alamgir’s court in the 1660s and 70s? It is suggestive that the first full-scale Indian music treatise in Persian for a Mughal emperor – Qazi Hasan’s Miftāḥ al-surūd (1663-4) – was written in Daulatabad for ‘Alamgir, and has many similar features.  More importantly, the humoral explanation of the rāgās’ potency is fundamental to several treatises written at ‘Alamgir’s court itself. 

We do not have the evidence to say definitively that Mughal connoisseurs and intellectuals were inspired to translate Indian music theory into Persian by what they saw coming out of Bijapur. What we can say is that the Javāhir al-mūsiqāt-i Muḥammadī is a precious landmark in Indian musicology: the earliest known musicological work in Dakhni, and the earliest full-scale Persian work on Indian music from the Mughal period still extant. Yet it is just one of hundreds of Indian musical treasures held today in the British Library’s collections.

Further reading

K B Brown [Schofield], “Hindustani music in the time of Aurangzeb,” unpublished PhD thesis (SOAS, 2003).
K B Schofield, “Reviving the Golden Age again,” Ethnomusicology 54.3 (2010), pp. 484-517
A Behl, The Magic Doe, W Doniger, ed. (Oxford, 2012).
M Zebrowski, Deccani painting (London, 1983).
E J Flatt, “The authorship and significance of the Nujūm al-‘ulūm,” JAOS 131.2 (2011), pp. 223-44.
L Y Leach, Mughal and other Indian paintings from the Chester Beatty Library (London, 1995).
D Hutton, Art of the court of Bijapur (Oxford, 2011).
J P Losty,  “Early Bijapuri musical paintings”, in An Age of Splendour, Islamic Art in India, ed. K. Khandalavala (Bombay, 1983), pp. 128-31.

With thanks to the European Research Council; and to Molly E Aitken, Yael Rice and Margaret E Walker for art-historical, codicological and dance-historical advice. Any errors are mine.

Katherine Butler Schofield, King's College London


[1] Mānakutūhala (Oriental Institute, Central Library, Baroda, acc. no. 2125). I am grateful to Nalini Delvoye for drawing my attention to this manuscript

10 October 2014

Three volumes of the Yongle Dadian now on display at the British Museum

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The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is open at the British Museum until 5 January 2015. During the years 1400-1450 the Chinese empire reached a peak in its own cultural and artistic productions and in its trade and exchange with other cultures. The stunning exhibition at the British Museum vividly represents the first-class  products of those years, with 280 extraordinary works from the Museum collections and from many other institutions.

Among the most interesting pieces from the British Library collections which are now on display, we find 3 volumes of the Yongle Encyclopaedia (永樂大典 Yongle Dadian), which takes its name from the Ming Emperor who commissioned it.
Emperor Yongle (Yongle 永樂 means perpetual happiness) as portrayed in an 18th century painted album (British Library Or. 2231)

Emperor Yongle (born with the name of Zhu Di 朱棣) was the third Emperor of the Ming dynasty and he reigned from 1402 to 1424. He was a key figure of the development of the Chinese empire: he transferred the capital of the empire from Nanjing to Beijing and ordered the building of the Forbidden City. Under his reign Admiral Zheng He travelled to the Middle East and East Africa strengthening the trade and diplomatic links with foreign countries. Indeed the importance of China as a production centre for the export of high quality goods during the first half of the 15th century is testified by some exquisite British Library Persian manuscripts, written on Chinese decorated paper, now on display in the exhibition.

Emperor Yongle commissioned the Yongle Dadian in July 1403 and the project involved 2169 scholars and compilers from the Hanlin Academy and the National University. Completed in 1408, it was the world’s largest literary compilation, comprising 28,877 chapters bound in 11,095 volumes. The Yongle Dadian was taken as an example and frequently quoted in the Qing dynasty encyclopaedia Siku quanshu (四庫禁書 “Complete Library of the Four Treasuries”), a colossal compilation in 36,275 volumes commissioned in 1773 by Emperor Qianlong.

The size, the type of paper, and the binding of the volumes are different from the other Chinese encyclopaedias. The paper is heavy with dark red vertical rulings. The subject headings are written in red on the outer edges of the pages. The binding is in the “wrapped-back” style (包背裝 bao bei zhuang), but with a distinctive yellow silk hard-cover to protect the paper.
Distinctive yellow hard cover from the volume containing chapters 7389 and 7390 of the Yongle Dadian (Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7) (British Library Or.11758)

The Yongle Dadian is unique not only for its physical appearance but also for its content arrangement: unlike other Chinese compilations, the parts are not ordered by subject, but by the rhythm system of the dictionary 洪武正韻 (Hongwu zhengyun). This system is closer to the idea of an alphabetical arrangement, and in this way it was easier to find a specific entry.

A page from the woodblock printed dictionary 洪武正韻 (Hongwu zhengyun) which is named after Hongwu (r. 1368-1398), the first emperor of the Ming dynasty who commissioned this work in 1375. 16th century copy (British Library 15342.b.14)

The content of the encyclopaedia covers all aspects of traditional “Confucian” knowledge and contains the most representative literature available at that time, ranging from history and drama to farming techniques. It comprises large sections of historical documents and other sources, transcribed character for character, with the name of the author or the source in red.
In fact, the term encyclopaedia, which is commonly used when referring to the Yongle Dadian, is slightly misleading since 大典 (da dian) means grand “canon” or “code” and the Yongle Dadian should be regarded rather as the Chinese literary genre of 類書 (lei shu), which literally means “classified writings”. These literary compilations span a wide variety of texts, such as dictionaries, reference books, manuals and anthologies. Unlike Western encyclopaedias which are based on edited entries, the Yongle Dadian is a collection of readings and excerpts from existing literature. Despite the non-originality (as we understand the term now) of these types of work, the value of the Yongle Dadian is enormous as it preserves many texts which otherwise would have been lost.
Left: Chapter 7389 (Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7) of the Yongle Dadian, concerned mainly with funeral rites (喪禮  sang li) (British Library Or.11758, f.1r)
Right: Illustration from the same item (British Library Or.11758, f.3v)

Even though printing techniques were already well developed in the Ming dynasty (the earliest dated woodblock-printed item, the Diamond Sutra, dates back to the 9th century), the Yongle Dadian was handwritten because of its length and extent. The only 1408 manuscript was almost destroyed by fire during the sixteenth century, and as a result two other copies were produced during the reigns of Jiajing 嘉靖 (1522-1566) and Longqing 隆慶 (1567-1572). This was not enough to keep the precious manuscripts safe: during the fall of the Ming dynasty and the rise of the Qing in 1644, the 1408 copy was destroyed and some of the later ones were lost or dispersed. The 1562-7 copies were at that time the earliest edition to survive and the number of volumes went down to 800. During the Boxer Uprising in Beijing during the spring of 1900, half of the remaining volumes which were stored in the Hanlin Academy were destroyed and now less than 400 juan (chapters) remain. They represent only the 3% of the total initial corpus.
Soy bean recipes on folio 3 (verso) of  chapter 13340 from the Yongle Dadian (British Library Or. 12020, Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7)

David Helliwell, Curator of Chinese Collections at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, has worked extensively on the Yongle Dadian volumes held in the European libraries (see Helliwell below), tracing their arrival from Beijing and identifying in 1997 a new volume in the University of Aberdeen Library [1]. Today there are about 56 volumes in Europe (51 in the United Kingdom and the remaining 5 in Berlin). The British Library currently holds 24 volumes of the Yongle Dadian, corresponding to 49 chapters. During the 1930s the National Library of China made copies of some chapters and donated them to the British Museum Library. Furthermore, in 1960, the Chinese publisher 中華書局 Zhonghua Shuju produced facsimiles of all the existing volumes.

Geomantic diagrams in chapter 14219 from the Yongle Dadian dedicated to geomancy (British Library Or. 14446, f. 5r, Jiajing to Longqing period, 1562-7)

Ming: 50 years that changed China is open at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
The British Library’s Yongle Dadian volumes 7389-90, 14219-20 and 13340-41 pictured in this article are on display.

Grinstead, Eric Douglas, “The Yung-lo Ta-tien: an Unrecorded Volume”, in The British Museum Quarterly no. 26, 1962.
Harrison-Hall, Jessica, “‘Ming: 50 years that changed China’ at the British Museum”, in Orientations, vol. 45, no. 6, 2014.
Helliwell, David, “Holdings of Yongle Dadian in United Kingdom libraries” in Yongle Dadian bianzuan 600 zhounian guoji yantaohui lunwenji, Beijing, 2003.
Shih-shan, Henry Tsai, Perpetual Happiness: the Ming Emperor Yongle, University of Washington Press, 2001.


Sara Chiesura, Asian and African Studies


[1] Helliwell, David, “The Aberdeen volume of Yongle Dadian”, lecture given to the University of Aberdeen Chinese Studies Group, 16 March 2009.