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

28 April 2015

Qur’an manuscripts from Java

Add comment Comments (0)

The regional origin of an illuminated Qur’an manuscript from Southeast Asia may often be easily detected from the structure, motifs and palette of the decorated double frames that adorn the opening pages and other key locations of the text. Illuminated Qur’ans from Java, however, exhibit such an an extraordinary variety of colours, shapes, forms and patterns that it is not possible to talk about a single ‘Javanese style’ of Qur’anic art. Rather, there appear to be myriad ‘Javanese styles’, which on further investigation may point to links with specific localities within Java, or perhaps certain social, cultural or religious milieux.  

Opening pages of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 1v-2r  noc

It is therefore quite difficult to identify positively a Qur’an manuscript as originating from Java on the basis of illumination alone, although smaller ‘internal’ decorative features such as the shape and colour of verse markers and marginal ornaments may offer conclusive evidence. However, there is one material aspect indicative of a Javanese origin: the use of locally-manufactured Javanese paper or dluwang, made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree, Broussonetia papyrifera. As noted in an earlier blog post about Malay manuscripts written on Javanese paper, dluwang is technically classified as bark cloth or tapa rather than paper, as it is not made from the dried residue of a water-based solution. There are hints that in earlier periods, perhaps prior to the 18th century, dluwang may have been exported from Java throughout the archipelago or even made locally on other islands, for Qur’ans written on dluwang have been found as far afield as Ternate. But with the increased availability through trade of higher-quality European paper, usage of dluwang outside Java appears to have dwindled. Thus while it should be stressed that Qur’an manuscripts from Java – especially finely-illuminated examples – are also written on European paper, at least from the 18th century onwards the use of dluwang in a Qur’an can be regarded as a reliable indicator of Javanese origin.  

Opening pages of a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add. 12343, ff. 1v-2r  noc

The British Library holds two complete copies of the Qur’an and one manuscript containing a portion of the Qur’an, all from Java and written on dluwang, which have just been digitised.  The two Qur’an manuscripts (Add. 12312 and Add. 12343) are from the collection of John Crawfurd, who served in the British administration of Java as Resident of Yogyakarta from 1811 to 1816. As is usual in most Southeast Asian Qur’ans, both Qur’ans have double decorated frames located at the beginning of the Holy Book enclosing the Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the Surat al-Baqarah on the left.  In Add. 12312 these frames are quite elaborate, in a simple but striking palette of black and red ink. Add. 12343 is much plainer, but illustrates well a notable structural feature of some Javanese Qur’an manuscripts, namely a marked preference for straight lines, juxtaposing vertical, horizontal and diagonal elements.

One of the most distinctive internal features of some Qur’an manuscripts from Java – whether written on dluwang or European paper – is that each juz’ or thirtieth part of the Qur’anic text is indicated with semi-circular ornaments on the vertical borders of the two facing pages, with the first words of the juz’ highlighted in a variety of ways. In Add. 12312 the precise start of the new juz’ is marked with a vertical stack of three red circles (seen five lines up from the bottom on the right-hand page below), while in Add. 12343 the first word of the juz’ is written in red ink.  

Start of the 2nd juz’ of the Qur’an, indicated in the margins with semicircular ornaments, and in the text with a stack of three red circles, with elaborate marginal 'ayn indicating ruku' divisions. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 14v-15r  noc

Add_ms_12343_f013r-det  Add_ms_12343_f012v-det
Start of the 3rd juz’ of the Qur’an, with the semicircles inscribed in red, al-juz’ al-thalath / min al-Qur’an al-‘azim, ‘the third thirtieth / of the glorious Qur’an’, with the stylized letter 'ayn  in the margin indicating ruku' divisions. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 12v and f. 13r (details)  noc

In Javanese manuscripts the ruled frames around the text generally comprise a simple arrangement of two, three or four black lines; in Add. 12312, the text frames are triple-ruled black lines, while in Add. 12343 the pages are framed by four lines arranged in two pairs. In both manuscripts the verse markers are red circles, while surah headings are in red ink, with characteristically Javanese decorative multiple knots on the final letters ta and ta marbuta. In the margins the letters ‘ayn indicate the logical breaks between thematically-linked verses in the text where the reader is expected to bow (ruku’).  This feature is common in Qur’an manuscripts from India, but in Southeast Asia is only associated with certain areas, particularly Java and Sulawesi; it is rare to encounter marginal ‘ayn marking ruku’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh or the Malay peninsula. In Add. 12312 the ruku’ positions are further indicated with a pyramidal construction of parallel lines alternately in red and black, surmounted by a finial in black, while in Add. 12343 the start of a ruku’ is indicated with the word awal.

Both manuscripts are undated, but must predate 1816 when Crawfurd left Java. Add.12312 bears a colophon in Arabic and Javanese stating that the manuscript was completed on a Saturday (Saptu) but without a year, while Add. 12343 has an inscription in Javanese identifying its writer as a court official.

Add.12343, own. note
Note identifying the scribe: Puniko seratanipun Abdi Dalem Pengulu Saila[n?], 'This was written by the Court Official Pengulu Saila[n?]' (with thanks to Ali Akbar for this reading). British Library, Add. 12343, f. 1r  noc

The penultimate chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Falaq: the scribe has stretched out the letters as much as possible in order to end precisely at the bottom of the page, so that the final chapter, Surat al-Nas, can be placed overleaf in a decorative frame, alongside the repeated first chapter, Surat al-Fatihah, on the facing page. Note the elaborately knotted final letters ta' and ta' marbuta in the surah heading written in red. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 189r (detail)  noc

The final manuscript, IO Islamic 3048, contains only juz’ 23 and 24 of the Qur’an. It is a very simple manuscript, with no verse markers or text frames, and with the surah headings written in black ink.  

Beginning of Surat al-Mu'min (Q.40). British Library, IO Islamic 3048, ff. 18v-19r  noc

Further reading

Colin Baker, Qur'an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design. London: British Library, 2007, pp. 90-91.
A.T. Gallop, The art of the Qur’an in JavaSuhuf, 2012, 5 (2): 215-229.
A.T. Gallop, Islamic manuscript art of Southeast Asia. Crescent moon: Islamic art & civilisation in Southeast Asia, ed. James Bennett.  Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2005, pp.156-183.
Ali Akbar, Khazanah mushaf al-Qur’an Nusantara [Blog on Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

24 April 2015

‘White Mughal’ William Fullerton of Rosemount

Add comment Comments (0)

Scottish surgeon William Fullerton (d.1805) from Rosemount enlisted with the East India Company and served in Bengal and Bihar from 1744-66. Developing close ties with locals, including the historian Ghulam Husain Khan, he remained in the region after retiring. Although his impressive linguistic abilities brought him attention, Fullerton’s prominence stems from the fact that he was the sole European survivor of the attack by Navab Mir Qasim of Bengal against the British at Patna in 1763!

Portrait of William Fullerton by Dip Chand, c. 1760-64. Victoria & Albert Museum. Wikimedia Commons.  noc

Living in Patna, Fullerton not only socialised with local historians, he befriended the artist Dip Chand. The artist was commissioned to paint Fullerton’s portrait and those of his acquaintances and members of his household, as well as scenes on religious topics. The British Library’s collection includes four paintings, two of which are illustrated below, and an additional six paintings are in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Each painting is inscribed on the reverse ‘W. F. 1764’ indicating that they were collected by Fullerton.

Little information has been discovered about the identities of artists flourishing in Bengal in the mid-eighteenth century. In fact, Dip Chand is the only major artist to be documented and that is directly through the connection to Fullerton. It is possible to suggest, based on Dip Chand’s portraits of Mir Qasim, that the artist spent some time in Murshidabad before migrating to Patna. While working in Patna he adopted a style that emphasized the effects of lighting and tonality, aerial perspective and experimentation with the saturation of pigments. His delineation of the human form is exceptionally fine, with subtle modelling and visible shadowing. He applied pigments with such precision that he effectively created a remarkable smooth surface.

Ashraf 'Ali Khan. Attributed to Dip Chand, Patna, 1764. British Library, Add.Or.736  noc

Ashraf ‘Ali Khan (d. 1792), half-brother of the emperor Ahmad Shah, is here portrayed in an atypical manner. Traditional portraiture conventions illustrated the subject either seated on a carpet or standing on a terrace, but he is sitting on a European wooden chair that has been placed on a tidal flat along the banks of the River Ganges. His simple attire includes a white jama with a heavy brown shawl draped over his shoulders, and he sits informally, cross-legged on the chair, his golden slippers removed, while holding up the mouthpiece of the hookah pipe. At a slight distance the hookah is placed on a wooden teapoy (three-legged table); the space permits the artist to accentuate the loops of the extensively long pipe. In the far distance are boats and sandbanks as well as the opposite riverbank.

Mutuby, mistress of Ashraf 'Ali Khan. Attributed to Dip Chand, Patna, 1764. British Library, Add.Or.735.  noc

A second portrait in the British Library by Dip Chand is that of a lady named Muttubby. Her identity is inscribed on the reverse and she is very likely to be a courtesan or a favourite mistress of a notable figure in Patna. As in the portrait of Ashraf ‘Ali Khan (fig. 113), she is seated in a European chair, though with her feet firmly on the ground, holding up a hookah pipe to her lips. Positioned in strict profile, with her upper body slightly twisted towards the viewer, her rather slender arms are visible. Although the landscapes in the two compositions are very similar they do not quite marry up, and it is possible that the artist intended these to be a pair, mounted in an album facing one another.

Dip Chand’s other portraits of local women in the Victoria & Albert Museum follow this convention, showing them perched or squatting on their chairs and smoking from a hookah. All of these were also commissioned by William Fullerton and bear his initials, dates and the abbreviated names of the women.

If you enjoyed looking at the paintings and wish to have a copy for yourself, you can order one through the British Library's Fine Art Prints website.


Further reading:
J.P. Losty, 'Towards a New Naturalism: Portraiture in Murshidabad and Avadh' in Schmitz (ed.) After the Great Mughals, Marg Publications, Mumbai, 2002.

J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, British Library, 2012.


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator  ccownwork

21 April 2015

Foreign travellers to 19th-century Siam

Add comment Comments (0)

By the 15th century the kingdom of Ayutthaya had developed into an important trading centre, and Europeans, led by the Portuguese, started to travel to the region to seek their commercial fortunes and to extend their influence. Accounts left by such travellers have become rich sources for the study of the region from the 16th century onwards.

In 1537, the German Mandelslohe visited Ayutthaya and called it the “Venice of the East”. In 1636 a Director of the Dutch East India Company, Joost Schorten, wrote an account of his residence in Ayutthaya, in which he noted the fierce competition between European powers, particularly Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands, to win the favour of local rulers (Francis Caron & Joost Schorten, 1771). France, too, established relations with the court of Ayutthaya during the reigns of King Narai and Louis XIV, and the two countries exchanged diplomatic missions in the 1680s. Simon de la Loubere, the leader of the French mission to Ayutthaya in 1687, wrote a memoir of his visit in 1688 entitled Du Royaume de Siam  (Paris, 1691), and this became an important source of information for western travellers to Siam in the 19th century.

Port of Chantaboun, Siam (Mouhot 1864: 1.136). British Library, 010056.F.8  noc

Foreign involvement in trade and politics in Siam declined after Ayutthaya collapsed in 1767 but in the 19th century, when competition among colonial powers to control Southeast Asia increased, more Westerners travelled to this region. Their journeys were either for individual scholastic purposes or were funded by colonial powers to further their political and economic ambitions.  The surgeon George Finlayson (1790–1823) accompanied the Crawfurd trade mission to Siam in 1821, and the account of his journey was published in 1826. His observations of Siamese culture and society provided, as Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles wrote in his introduction to Finlayson’s book, “much valuable information respecting countries and people, hitherto almost unknown to us … The author’s observation [is] as a spectator in common with others who were present on the occasion; its object is to throw light on the country, and on the character, institutions, and habits of the people generally” (Finlayson 1826: vii-viii).

In 1852, Frederick Arthur Neale, who served as a military officer to the Siamese court in 1840s, published an account of his residence in Siam. He often quoted details about the kingdom from previous travellers, such as La Loubere and Finlayson.  However, he also recorded his own observations and opinions, some of which may seem quite shocking to us today. For example, he wrote that “The Siamese ladies may without the smallest fear of competition proclaim themselves to be the ugliest race of females upon the face of the globe. With their hair worn in the same fashion as the men, the same features, same complexion, and same amount of clothing, a man must be a gay Lothario indeed who would be captivated by their leering glances” (Neale 1852: 238-241).
Siamese women (Mouhot 1864: 1.60).  British Library, 010056.F.8  noc

Neale further commented that “it has often been remarked of the natives of the East that they are almost unchangeable in their modes of government, habits of life, and ways of thinking, century after century passes away unmarked by progress and undistinguished by change … The Siamese certainly form no exception to this remark”  (Neale 1852: 242).

Neale’s concept of the East was typical of colonial thinking of the period. However, Sir John Bowring, who led a successful British mission to secure a free trade agreement with Siam in 1855, was more cautious in his judgements. He observed that “Generalizations as to national character are among the great defects of writers on foreign countries, and, when examined, will in most cases be discovered to be the result of impressions early and hastily formed, or of some solitary examples of individual experience, from which all-embracing deductions are drawn” (Bowring 1857: 1.102). 
Wat Chang, Bangkok (Bowring 1857: 1.292) British Library, T38881  noc

By the mid-19th century, Bangkok had opened its door to western powers for commercial activities, and the successful British trade agreement in 1855 was soon followed by similar agreements between other western countries and Siam. According to L’Annuaires des Deux Mondes, of 1858-1859, “The government of Siam is showing itself more and more favourable towards Europeans, who find at Bangkok not only protection, but sympathy and toleration for their religion. Bangkok has become one of the most considerable markets of Asia; and the kingdom of Siam is reaping the reward of the liberal politics which it has introduced into the extreme East, and which is warmly seconded by France, England and the United States”  (Mouhot 1864: 1.105).
Two years after Neale’s book was published, a French missionary and long-term resident of Siam during the 19th century, Jean Baptiste Pallegoix, published his account of Siam in Paris under the title Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam (1854).  His extensive knowledge of Siam proved valuable for Sir John Bowring when the latter came to write his own account of the kingdom, The Kingdom and People of Siam (1857).  

In 1858, Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist and explorer, travelled to Indochina after reading Bowring’s book.  Mouhout planned to conduct a series of botanical expeditions for the collection of new specimens, but his requests for grants and passage were rejected by French companies and the government of Napoleon III. However, the Royal Geographical Society and the Zoological Society of London lent him their support, and he set sail that year for Bangkok, which, like Mandelslohe three centuries before, he termed ‘the Venice of the East’ (Mouhout 1864: 1.56).  Henri Mouhot’s travel journal was edited by his brother, Charles Mouhot, and an English version was published in London in 1864. Here he introduced the Temple of Angkor to the western world, and this publication, with his exquisite detailed engravings, helped to popularise the now famous complex of ruined temples. These illustrations of a faraway and exotic land must have had an enormous impact on their western readers. Sadly, Mouhot was unable to complete his mission as he was struck down with malaria while travelling in Laos, where he died on November 10, 1861.

Angkor Wat (Mouhot 1864: 1.279) British Library, 010056.F.8  noc

These travellers’ accounts made a very significant contribution to the body of knowledge of Siam among westerners at the time. Their detailed descriptions and magnificent illustrations of the countries, peoples and cultures enabled readers in the West a unique chance to visualise these foreign lands and peoples. They were, in effect, the TV travel documentaries of their time.

Further reading:

Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam. London, 1857. British Library, T38881
Jean Baptiste Pallegoix. Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam. Paris, 1854. British Library, 10055.aa.17
George Finlayson, The Mission to Siam and Hue. London, 1826. British Library, 1046.c.21
Simon de la Loubere, Du Royaume de Siam, Paris, 1691. British Library 279.a.10
Henri Mouhot, Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos. London: John Murray, 1864.  British Library, 010056.F.8
Frederick Arthur Neale, Narrative of a Residence at the Capital of the Kingdom of Siam. London, 1852. British Library, 741.b.10
Jean Baptiste Pallegoix, Description du Royaume Thai ou Siam (Paris: 1854). British Library, 10055.aa.17
Francis Caron & Joost Schorten, A True Description of the Mighty Kingdoms of Japan and Siam.  London, 1671. British Library, 571.a.32

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese  ccownwork