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

20 November 2014

The beauty of palm leaf manuscripts (1): Central Thailand

Add comment Comments (0)

Palm leaves have been a popular writing support in South and Southeast Asia for about two thousand years. In Thailand, palm leaf manuscripts were produced mostly for religious, literary and historical texts, but also for works relating to astronomy and astrology, law, history, and traditional and Buddhist medicine.

Palmleaf1 Or5107
A royal court version of the Samantapāsādika-atthakathā-yojanā, British Library, Or 5107.  noc

Both the palmyra and talipot palms were used for the production of manuscripts in Thailand. The palm leaves, which were first boiled and then dried and sometimes smoked or baked in a kiln before being written on, are robust and can last for as long as 600 years even in the humid, tropical climate of South and Southeast Asia. Each leaf contains between 3 to 5 lines of writing, but occasionally we also find miniature illustrations or gilt ornaments decorating the text. In central Thailand, the text was mostly written either in Thai or in Khom script, which is a variant of Khmer script used in Cambodia. The writing was usually incised with a hard wood or metal stylus, after which soot or lampblack mixed with oil was wiped onto the leaves and then wiped off again, leaving the black pigment only in the incisions. In rare cases, black ink was used to write the text on to the palm leaves with a bamboo pen or a brush.

A bundle of leaves, called phūk in Thai, was usually fastened together with two cotton cords, which were threaded through two holes pierced through the leaves of the entire manuscript. Title indicators made from wood, bamboo or ivory, with the title or a very brief description of the contents of the manuscript, were sometimes tied to a palm-leaf manuscript in order to identify the text(s) contained within.

Valuable manuscripts or important Buddhist works were protected from physical damage with wooden boards, which could be beautifully carved, gilded, lacquered, or decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay. Sometimes, palm leaf manuscripts were wrapped in cotton or silk cloth, or were kept in custom-made gilt and lacquered wooden cases to protect them from damage by rodents, insects or water.

Shown at the top of this page is a manuscript consisting of fifteen bundles of palm leaves that contains part of a commentary on the Vinaya-pitaka. The manuscript is in Pali language, but written in Khom (Khmer) script, and dates back to the nineteenth century, between 1851 and 1868 A.D. Each section of this important Buddhist work has magnificent title leaves with gilt and black lacquer decorations showing celestial figures (devata) and flowery patterns.

Palmleaf2 Or 5701 detail
Detail of the front leaf of the third bundle of British Library, Or 5107.  noc

The wooden covers of this manuscript are lacquered black, with patterns of leaves and flowers in mother-of-pearl inlay. The manuscript is stored in a red silk and cotton wrapper of Indian origin with a gold thread pattern, made to order for the Thai royal court. This manuscript is of the same high standard as manuscripts given to Wat Chetuphon in Bangkok by King Mongkut (Rama IV).

Palmleaf3 Or_16753_f001r
Idyllic scenes from the heavenly Himavanta forest to accompany extracts from the Sutta-pitaka, painted on palm leaf. British Library, Or 16753.  noc

This fragmented manuscript shown above dates back to the early nineteenth century. The Pāli text is written with black ink in Khom (Khmer) script which was used in central Thailand mainly for Buddhist texts in Pali or in Thai language. Painted illustrations on palm leaves are very rare. Their production required special skills and experiences which only painters working for the royal court were able to acquire, hence the outstanding quality of these miniature-sized paintings.

Palmleaf4 coverOR_12524_fblefr
Covers belonging to a Paññāsa Jātaka manuscript, British Library, Or 12524. The wooden covers are decorated with black lacquer and gilt plant ornaments.  noc

Extra-canonical birth tales of the Buddha, known as Paññāsa Jātaka are popular all over mainland Southeast Asia.  This 19th century manuscript consists of 469 palm leaves with gilt edges, in ten bundles. The text is written in Khom (Khmer) script.

Palmleaf5 OR_12524_f001v
Detail of the second leaf of the first bundle of British Library, Or 12524, showing a heavenly crown.  noc

The manuscript has gilded front and back leaves for every bundle. Each leaf following a front leaf has two oval illustrations; one on the left showing a heavenly vihāra, and one on the right showing a heavenly crown in between two parasols.

Palmleaf6 Rylands
An ivory title indicator with a hand-woven title band for a Buddhist palm leaf manuscript containing an extract from the Patimokkha, the basic code of monastic discipline. John Rylands Library (Manchester), Pali MS 82.

This title indicator from the mid-nineteenth century is inscribed in Khom (Khmer) script, giving the title and number of palm-leaf bundles contained in the manuscript. It has a carved flowery design and a hole at one end to attach it to a rope that is wrapped around the manuscript. To the manuscript also belongs a piece of silk and cotton cloth similar to the one shown above in British Library Or 5107. The title band contains the same information as the ivory indicator. It has some similarities with Burmese sazigyo or woven title bands, but it is much shorter and attached to the same rope as the title indicator.

Title indicators and bands were important means of identifying manuscripts when these were stored together in huge wooden cabinets, often lavishly decorated with black or red lacquer, gilt, mother-of-pearl inlay or mirror glass inlay.

A wooden case from the 19th century with gilt and lacquer relief decorations showing heavenly deva figures (see detail below) and floral designs. The case was custom-made for one Buddhist palm-leaf manuscript, British Library Or.16820/B.  noc

Detail from the wooden case above, showing a guardian figure or deva on a flowery background made from metal wire, lacquer and very thin gold leaf. The metal wire circles used to be decorated with mirror glass inlay which has been lost. British Library Or.16820/B.  noc

There are three types of traditional manuscript storage caskets in Central Thailand: the single manuscript case, the chest and the cabinet. All three are usually made from wood, often beautifully carved or decorated with lacquer and gilt, or sometimes with intricate mother-of-pearl inlay. Cases for single manuscripts were specially made for valuable Buddhist works, such as manuscripts sponsored by members of the royal family or manuscripts that were produced for a special occasion like a monk’s ordination.

Further reading

Guy, John. Palm-leaf and paper, illustrated manuscripts of India and Southeast Asia. With an essay by O.P. Agrawal. Melbourne : National Gallery of Victoria, 1982

Kō̜ngkǣo Wīrapračhak. Khamphī bai lān chabap lūang nai samai Rattanakōsin. Bangkok: Krom Sinlapākō'n, 2527 [1987]

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


17 November 2014

Digital Hebrew treasures from the British Library collections

Add comment Comments (0)

In an earlier communication we informed our readers about a far-reaching 3-year project funded by the Polonsky Foundation, which aims to digitise 1250 Hebrew manuscripts held at the British Library, making them available to a global audience (Opening up the Hebrew collection).
The first 45 Hebrew manuscripts that went live on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site last April (45 Hebrew manuscripts go digital) included chiefly Hebrew Bibles, such as the supremely significant London Codex dating from c. 9th century (Or 4445), and the elegant Golden Haggadah a medieval Passover liturgy sumptuously illuminated in Catalonia in the 14th century (Add MS 27210).

Detail of a miniature of the second plague, of frogs from the 'Golden Haggadah', Spain, 2nd quarter of the 14th century (British Library Add Ms 27210, f 12v)

Our devoted followers will be pleased to learn that our recent upload broadens the scope for discovery and research even further with over 300 Hebrew  manuscripts now online. The manuscripts included in the latest ingest present a wider diversity of subjects, thus, apart from Bibles and biblical commentaries, one will find liturgies, manuscripts of the Talmud (large corpus of Jewish law and tradition; includes the Mishnah and the Gemara), Talmudic commentaries, midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew scriptural text) and halakhah (the legal component of Talmudic literature).

There is additionally a greater variation of languages. Though a fair number were written in Hebrew, languages such as Aramaic, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters) are well represented. A good example of a Judeo-Arabic manuscript is Or 2220, a commentary on the Talmudic order Mo’ed (Festivals) by the illustrious Jewish sage Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) which was penned in the 15th century in Yemen. Noteworthy too are the handwriting styles employed in these handwritten books, with square, semi-cursive and cursive Hebrew scripts peculiar to the geographic areas the scribes originated from. Add MS 26992, Tikune ha-Ri”f, a legal work by Abraham ben Shabbatai Del Vechio (d. 1654) written apparently during his lifetime, provides a fine example of an Italian cursive type of Hebrew writing. A Sephardi semi-cursive Hebrew hand can be identified in Harley MS 5719, a 15th century manuscript copy of the Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Law), the legal code Maimonides composed between 1068 and 1078 while living in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt. Or 2220 mentioned earlier provides a good specimen of a semi-cursive Yemenite hand.

Among the uploaded manuscripts there are significant Karaite biblical commentaries and Karaite works dealing with religious legal matters that will form the subject of a future blog. For a full list of the manuscripts that are now online, please follow this link (Hebrew digitised mss_November 2014).

The present upload features a considerable number of decorated and illuminated pieces representing all the schools of Hebrew manuscript painting that thrived in Europe between the 13th and 15th centuries. A beautiful two-volume Bible with subtly coloured illuminations is a telling example of Hebrew manuscript art that developed in Italy in the last quarter of the 13th century.
Menorah (Temple Candelabrum) flanked by foliate scrolls inhabited by animals and hybrids. Italy (Rome or Bologna?)  (British Library Harley MS 5710, f.136r)

A splendid example of the art that developed particularly in Southern Germany in the Lake Constance area during the 14th century is found in the Tripartite Mahzor, a festival prayer book for Shavu’ot (Festival of Weeks) and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). This is in fact the second volume of a three-volume manuscript. Volumes one and three are kept respectively in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest (Kaufmann Collection MS A384) and in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Michael 619).

Historiated word panel depicting Moses, at left, receiving the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai, with Aron and the Israelites standing in prayer. Trumpets and rams’ horns pierce through the clouds, marking the occasion. The gilded word Adon in the centre of the panel opens the liturgical poem ‘The Lord has taken care of me’ which is recited during Shavu’ot, a festival celebrating the giving of the Torah to the Israelites. Germany, c.1322 (British Library Add MS 22413, f. 3r)

Decorated word panel showing a man with a pitcher and a cup at the opening of a liturgical poem. Germany, c. 1322. (British Library Add MS 22413, f. 148r)

An additional specimen from the German school of Hebrew illumination is the beautifully executed Coburg Pentateuch which was produced c. 1396. Beside the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) it comprises the Five Scrolls, Haftarot (weekly readings from the Prophets) and grammatical treatises. The text of the Pentateuch was penned in an Ashkenazi square script by a master scribe named Simhah Levi, while the vocalization was done by Samuel bar Abraham of Molerstadt. The other textual parts in the codex were penned and vocalised by other scribes.

King Solomon, famed for his justice and wisdom is depicted seating on a throne shaped like the roof of a building. At his feet there are several animals, most likely hinting at his ability to converse with the animal kingdom. Coburg, Germany, c. 1396 (British Library Add MS 19776, f. 54v)

A magnificently illuminated codex crafted in France in the 13th century is the North French Hebrew Miscellany. It was written by Benjamin the Scribe, whose name appears four times in the manuscript. The absence of a colophon has led scholars to assume that the scribe wrote the manuscript for his personal use. This was common practice among medieval educated Jews who often copied important Hebrew texts for their own libraries. There are eighty-four different groups of texts in this codex including dozens of poems, the liturgy of the entire year, calendars, and the earliest complete Hebrew version of Tobit. According to scholarly research the 49 full-page miniatures depicting biblical characters and narratives were executed by Christian artists attached to three major contemporary Parisian ateliers.

David and Goliath. France, 1278-1298. (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 523v)

Aaron the Priest pouring oil in the Candelabrum. France, 1278-1298 (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 114r)

From the Portuguese school of Hebrew manuscript painting comes the Lisbon Bible, a three volume manuscript which was copied by Samuel ben Samuel Ibn Musa for Joseph ben Judah called Elhakim in 1482. The finely painted illuminations enhanced by gold leaf were executed by a team of skilled craftsmen in a Lisbon workshop which was active for the three decades preceding the expulsion of the Portuguese Jewry in 1497. The manuscript was sold to the British Museum in 1882, but nothing is known about its location and owners after 1482 until the year it was purchased by the British Museum.  
Beginning of the Book of Genesis with foliate motifs and Masoretic notation outlined in micrography. Lisbon, 1482 (British Library Or 2626, f. 23v)

The uploading process is on-going and by the end of this month users and researchers everywhere will be able to access digitally 400 out of the 1250 manuscripts included in the project. Please watch this space for details of the next batch of Hebrew handwritten books due to go live in the next few weeks!

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies 


14 November 2014

An early Malay letter from Brunei

Add comment Comments (0)

In the sixteenth century the kingdom of Brunei was one of the most powerful Malay states in Southeast Asia, its influence extending along the whole of the north coast of the island of Borneo and as far northwards as Manila bay. In time its grip over neighbouring polities was greatly curtailed by its rival Sulu to the east, and by European colonial powers such as the Spanish in the Philippines and, in the nineteenth century, various British enterprises in Borneo: the Brooke dynasty of ‘White Rajahs’ in Sarawak, and the Chartered Company in Sabah.

The city of Brunei in c.1844, built on stilts over the river. Frank S. Marryat, Borneo and the Indian Archipelago (London: Longman, 1848). British Library, W7007.  noc

An early Malay letter from Brunei held in the British Library (Harley Ch 43 A 6) which has just been digitised attests to a period when Brunei’s fleets still sailed far beyond the shores of Borneo.  The letter was sent from the Raja Bendahara Paduka Seri Maharaja Permaisuara of Brunei to ‘Senyor Kapitan Inggeris’, the head of the English trading settlement at Jambi, on the east coast of Sumatra. The letter accompanied an embassy from the sultan of Brunei led by three senior officials – Seri Laila Diraja, Seri Setia Pahlawan and Seri Raja Khatib – to the court of Jambi, with a request to purchase sendawa, saltpetre (an essential component of gunpowder) and kain gabar, blankets.

Although damaged and torn, currently laminated with gauze and possibly missing part of the sheet of paper which may have contained a seal, the letter may be partially dated from its historical context. Lured by pepper, the English East India Company had arrived in Jambi and established a ‘factory’ or trading post in October 1615. This lasted until 1679, when the factory was burned and its captain killed in the attack on Jambi by Johor. The ruler of Jambi named in the letter as ‘Pangiran Adipati’ was probably Pangiran Dipati Anum, who reigned under that title from 1630 until 1661, when he took the title ‘Pangiran Ratu’ on the accession of his son as ‘junior ruler’. The letter was therefore most likely written some time in the mid-seventeenth century, between 1630 and 1661.  

Letter from the Bendahara of Brunei to the English captain at Jambi, mid-17th century. British Library, Harley Ch 43 A 6.  noc

The relative antiquity of this Malay letter has long been recognized, and in 1898 it was discussed, edited and translated by W.G. Shellabear in his important article ‘An account of some of the oldest Malay MSS. now extant’. Shellabear was hesitant to read the toponym in the letter spelt b-r-n-y as Brunei, so distant from Jambi, and suggested it might refer to ‘the neighbouring kingdom of Birni’. In fact, as first proposed by Amin Sweeney (1971), there is no reason to doubt that this letter is from Brunei (not least for the reason that no references at all can be found to any state in east Sumatra named ‘Birni’). Although the title Bendahara for the most senior court official after the sultan is found in many Malay states, it is usually qualified with honorifics that help to locate it precisely, and the form 'Bendahara Paduka Seri Maharaja Permaisuara' is unique to Brunei. Indeed, the typically Brunei use of medial alif in Permaisuara instead of the more commonly encountered Permaisura is another indication of Brunei origin, and even Shellabear himself acknowledged that the spelling membali (m.m.b.a.l.y) for the more usual membeli (‘to buy’) reflected Brunei pronounciation. Moreover, the three embassy officials named in the letter all bear recognizable Brunei titles.

negeri Brunei dan negeri Jambi’, detail from the letter showing the spelling b-r-n-y of 'Brunei'. British Library, Harley Ch 43 A 6 (detail).  noc

Shellabear also thought it strange that Brunei would venture so far to buy goods from the English more easily procurable from the Spanish. And yet for much of the 17th century Brunei's relations with the Spanish were hostile – in 1647 there was a joint Brunei-Dutch expedition against the Spaniards (Nicholl 1989: 189) – thus making trade with the Spaniards highly unlikely. Shellabear’s other main reservation, in view of the physical distance between Brunei and Jambi, was the description in the letter of the two states being ‘as if they were one country’ (upama sebuah negeri jua adanya). But such complimentary similes are not unusual in Malay letters, and more pertinently, a similar phrase is also used in a Brunei letter of 1821 from Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam to William Farquhar, British Resident of Singapore: kerana kepada pikiran beta akan kedua buldan itu esa tiada ada antaranya maka jadilah keduanya umpama satu hamparan, ‘For to my mind our two states are as one, with nothing to separate them, like a single mat’ (Gallop 1995: 224).

Like two other early Malay manuscripts in the British Library from the Sloane collection, this letter – from the Harley library of the first Earls of Oxford – was present at the foundation of the British Museum in 1753.  

Further reading

D.E. Brown, Brunei: the structure and history of a Bornean Malay sultanate. Brunei: Brunei Museum, 1970. (Monograph of the Brinei Museum Journal; II.2).
A.T. Gallop, Malay sources for the history of the sultanate of Brunei in the early nineteenth century: some letters from the reign of Sultan Muhammad Kanzul Alam.  From Buckfast to Borneo: essays presented to Father Robert Nicholl on the 85th anniversary of his birth, 27 March 1995, eds. Victor T. King & A.V.M.Horton.  Hull: University of Hull, 1995; pp.207-35.
Robert Nicholl, European sources for the history of the Sultanate of Brunei in the sixteenth century. Brunei: Muzium Brunei, 1975.
W.G. Shellabear, An account of some of the oldest Malay MSS. now extant. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1898, (31):107-151.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia