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 April 2015

Malay manuscripts from south Sumatra

Add comment Comments (1)

Think ‘Malay manuscript’, think ‘Jawi’ – the modified form of the Arabic script used in Southeast Asia – but this is not invariably the case. Manuscripts in the Malay language from the interior regions of south Sumatra are often written in local incung scripts of Indian origin, which read from left to right. Apart from the rare Kerinci script, the two main variants of incung script encountered in manuscripts from south Sumatra are Lampung and Rejang (or rencong). In addition to paper, manuscripts are written on pieces of bamboo and strips of tree bark folded in concertina form. Most such manuscripts probably date from the late 18th and 19th centuries, but a bark book in Lampung script was given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford by Jo. Trefusis in 1630, making it by far the earliest dateable south Sumatran manuscript known (reproduced in Gallop & Arps 1991: 71).

Syair perahu, ‘The poem of the boat’, Sufi poem in Malay in rencong script. British Library, MSS Malay A 2  noc

Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library that have recently been digitised are four manuscripts from south Sumatra. Shown above is a folded tree bark manuscript of Syair perahu, ‘The poem of the boat’, written in Malay in rencong script (MSS Malay A 2). This Sufi poem comparing the mystical path to a voyage in a boat, based on the system of the ‘seven grades of being’ (wahdat al-wujud), was formerly attributed to the Sumatran mystic Hamzah Fansuri. However, Braginsky (2004: 676) has distinguished two distinct Syair perahu, neither of which is by Hamzah; the first - as in the present manuscript - which has only survived today in rencong script, and was probably composed in the second half of the 17th century by Syamsuddin of Pasai or one of his disciples; and a second, better-known, version, currently preserved in Jawi manuscripts.

A brief unidentified text, perhaps an incantation, with drawings, at the end of the manuscript of Syair perahu. MSS Malay A 2  noc

Two other manuscripts are both written on bamboo. One incomplete text in rencong script, comprising 31 strips of bamboo, contains a tembai (myth of origins) and teremba (genealogy), in the form of a metrical litany narrating the descent of the soul from its prenatal state in the land of the souls (MSS Malay D 11). According to the Dutch linguist and authority on Sumatran langauges, Petrus Voorhoeve, ‘It is a curious document of the syncretism of animistic and Muslim ideas that is characteristic for South Sumatra in the period of transition from the old religion to Islam. In such a composition one cannot expect a strick adherence to the rules of logic.’  Voorhoeve further notes that the last part of the text 'refers to the reluctance of the soul to be born, caused by the premonitions of death that it feels during the last nine days before birth. On each of these days it entreats its parents to avert this threatening danger. Reflection on its eternal origin, purification with citrus-juice, sacrificial meals and prayers are the means to reach this end. Their effect is that the soul feels "a little better", and though the text ends abruptly in the middle of the last day we may suppose that the soul is at last persuaded to take its abode in this world of "time" and "death". Perhaps this litany was recited during the ceremonies which were performed in the last days before the birth of a child.'

Tembai and teremba, Malay manuscript in rencong script on bamboo. The first lines of the text have been read by Voorhoeve: Anjut parahu dari ulu / pisang rukama kanan pari / tambai kutahu dari guru / taraba kapun barahi. British Library, MSS Malay D 11, f. 1r  noc

The second manuscript on bamboo is Seribu maksa (Or. 12986) concerning a conversation between the Prophet (Nebi Rasululah) and Sayih Wali Mahemat. The text is in south-Sumatran literary Malay in Lampung script, which can be distinguished from rencong script by the presence of a symbol for the vowel ĕ pĕpĕt (like the initial 'a' of 'alone'). Digitised together with the manuscript is a typed sheet containing Voorhoeve's revision of the order of the bamboo strips, based upon the same text as found in the National Library of Indonesia, Jakarta, MS E 86.

Seribu maksa, in Malay in Lampung script. British Library, Or. 12986  noc

The fourth manuscript (MSS Malay A 4), and the only one on paper, is a collection of pantun or quatrains entitled Surat pantun cara Lampung, written in parallel columns of the Lampung dialect in Lampung script and Malay in Jawi script. The manuscript, which is dated 1812, contains poems used by young people in courtship. It was probably written for a European, perhaps in Bengkulu, where the East India Company had a base.

Surat pantun cara Lampung, courtship poems, 1812. British Library, MSS Malay A 4, ff. 2v-3r  noc

To this small collection of four Malay manuscripts from South Sumatra in the British Library, we are very pleased to have added a fifth, thanks to the generosity of Christopher and Zissa Davidson. Chris worked in Lampung in the 1980s, and when he and Zissa left in 1988 they were given a bark book as a leaving present by very good Dutch friends. The book had earlier been acquired by these friends as a small tourist shop selling some local artefacts in a hotel beside Danau Ranau, a volcanic lake in the northwest of the province. Zissa first contacted the British Library in 2002 to find out some information about the manuscript. After some discussions, earlier this month she and Chris most kindly came up from their home in Hampshire to donate the manuscript to the British Library, where it has been given the shelfmark Or. 16936. The contents have not yet been identified (alas, Dr Voorhoeve passed away in 1996), but the ruled lines dividing the pages suggest that this may be a compendium of short texts. We hope to be able to digitise the manuscript soon so that it can be studied by the few people still able to read Lampung script.

Lampung manuscript on folded tree bark. British Library, Or. 16936

The Lampung manuscript (Or. 16936) donated to the British Library by Chris and Zissa Davidson, 1 April 2015

Further reading:

Vladimir Braginsky, The heritage of traditional Malay literature. Leiden: KITLV Press, 2004; on 'Sufi poems of the boat' see pp. 676-688.
Mark Durie, ‘Ancient links: the mystery of South Sumatra’ in: Illuminations: the writing traditions of Indonesia, ed. by Ann Kumar and John H. McGlynn. New York: Weatherhill; Jakarta: Lontar, 1996, pp. 247-52.
Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps, Golden Letters: writing traditions of Indonesia / Surat Emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia. London: British Library; Jakarta: Yayasan Lontar, 1991
P. Voorhoeve, Critical survey of studies on the languages of Sumatra. ‘s-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, 1955.  

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia   ccownwork

13 April 2015

Happy New Year – with a splash of cool water!

Add comment Comments (0)

Between the 13th and 15th April the Water Festival, locally known as Songkran or New Year Festival, takes place in Thailand, and it is indeed one of the most colourful and merriest festivals in the entire region since it is observed in neighbouring Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia as well. Tai peoples living in the south of China and in Vietnam also celebrate the Water Festival. Songkran is derived from the Sanskrit word saṅkrānti meaning “progress” or “move forward”, describing the entry of the sun into any sign of the zodiac according to the solar calendar. The full traditional name of the April Songkran - when the sun leaves Pisces to enter Aries - was Maha-Songkran, meaning major Songkran, in order to distinguish it from the other monthly Songkran. Although Maha-Songkran takes place in the 5th month of the lunar year according to the traditional Tai calendar, it is regarded as the start of the New Year because it marks the beginning of the annual rice planting cycle, which usually starts in May as soon as the rains begin to fall.

Image 1 OR_14732_f037r
Ladies in festive outfits carrying offerings to the Buddhist temple. Illustration from a 19th century Thai Buddhist manuscript, British Library, Or. 14732, f. 73  noc

The origins of the festival are explained in a legend which is well known all over mainland Southeast Asia. There was once a young man, Dhammapala, who was highly prodigious in learning and could even understand the language of birds. The god Kabila Mahaphrom (Brahma) came down to earth to challenge Dhammapala with three riddles, with the wager that if the young man failed to give the right answers within seven days he would lose his head, but if he succeeded, Brahma himself would give up his head. Dhammapala had already prepared himself to die when, under a tree, he overheard an eagle mother telling her curious offspring the solution to the riddles. On the appointed day, the young man gave Brahma the three correct answers and the god immediately cut off his own head.

Image 2 IO_Pali_207_f014r
The god Brahma, characterised by his four faces. Illustration from an 18th century Thai manuscript containing a text on the Great Qualities of the Buddha, British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 27  noc

However, Brahma’s head was extremely hot, and if it touched the earth, there would be a universal firestorm destroying all life, while if it fell into the sea, all water would dry up. Therefore, the god’s daughters took care of his head and deposited it in a heavenly cave. Once every year during Maha-Songkran one of the daughters removes the head from the cave, bathes it and carries it in a procession together with all the other gods and heavenly beings circumambulating  Mount  Meru.  The procession is followed by a joyful feast of the gods and goddesses. The seven daughters represent the seven days of the week and all have their particular names and vehicles that they ride on, but the one who carries Brahma’s head on Songkran Day is called Nang Songkran, Miss Songkran.

Image 3 OR_14117_f029v
Illustration from a 19th century Thai manuscript depicting deities in the Buddhist heavens, British Library, Or. 14117, f. 58  noc

The heavenly procession and feast were traditionally re-enacted on earth, and this tradition is still followed today with some local amendments and additions. The exact date and time of the appearance of Miss Songkran with Brahma’s head is when the sun first enters the sign of Aries, a date and time to be established by astrologers and astronomers. The day before Songkran people clean their houses and compounds. Early on the first day of Songkran, people young and old visit their local Buddhist temples to offer food to the monks, to pray and to listen to sermons. Many communities organise temple fairs with music and other entertainments on this occasion. In the afternoon, there is an official bathing ceremony of the Buddha images and of the abbot of the local temple. After this purification ceremony begins the actual Water Festival, which traditionally involved people gently pouring water into the hands of elders and respected persons in order to pay tribute to them, and younger people helping the elderly take a scented bath and change into new clothes presented to them. During all three days of the Songkran Festival people amuse themselves by throwing water at each other or at strangers, and any passer-by can be sure to get soaking wet. Even monks are not exempted. In some places dry coloured powder is also thrown at people, an act that has parallels with the Holi Festival.

Image 4 OR_14956_f013r
A family offering food to a Buddhist monk. Illustration from a 19th century Phra Malai manuscript from central Thailand, British Library, Or. 14956, f. 25  noc

Other activities during the Songkran Festival include a religious service in memory of the deceased and offering ceremonies for local guardian spirits. The ashes of the royal ancestors are blessed by the supreme members of the Sangha. In northeast Thailand, like in Laos, families organise Su Khwan ceremonies in order to wish each other good health, peace, prosperity and longevity, and to receive blessings from their elders. Many people engage in special merit making acts by releasing birds, fish or tortoises from captivity, or by offering sand to their local Buddhist temple. The sand offering, which can be made even by the poorest people and carries the same merit as a contribution to the building of a real pagoda, is done in form of erecting a sand pagoda or stupa-like structure in which a coin or a leaf from the Bodhi tree is placed. On the outside, the pagoda or stupa is sprinkled with water and can be decorated with flags and banners while candles, incense sticks and flowers are placed at its base. It is said that the sand helps to raise the level of the temple ground which may be susceptible to flooding during the rainy season.

Image 5 OR_14027_f033v
Illustration from a collection of Buddhist texts and Sutras contained in a Thai folding book from the 18th century, British Library, Or. 14027, f. 66  noc

In many places, a beauty contest takes place during the Water Festival. The winner, who is not only the most beautiful and best dressed but also the most virtuous girl, is crowned Nang Songkran in memory of Brahma’s daughters who look after the god’s head eternally. She will take part in a colourful procession while being driven in a carriage that has the shape of the animal that is the vehicle of the daughter of Brahma whose turn it is to cleanse the god’s head at the beginning of this New Year.

Further reading

Phya Anuman Rajadhon, Loy Krathong and Songkran festival. (Thailand culture Series; No. 5). Bangkok: The National Culture Institute, 1956

Santosh N. Desai, Hinduism in Thai life. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1980

Suttinee Yavaprapas, Songkran festival. Bangkok: Ministry of Culture, 2004

Thai culture – Songran festival. Cultural kit no. 3 guide book. Bangkok: The Office of the National Culture Commission, 1989

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

10 April 2015

Royal genealogies from Indonesia and the Malay world

Add comment Comments (0)

The prestige of a royal house in the Malay archipelago rested in no small part on claims of  descent from illustrious ancestors. At the most deep-rooted level, myths of origin in Malay texts drew on primordial Austronesian beliefs of unity between the earth and sky, symbolised by the marriage between a prince who descended from heaven and a princess from the earth or water, who emerged from a mass of foam or a clump of bamboo (cf. Ras 1970: 81-99). With the coming of Islam, into this chain of descent were introduced powerful figures from the Islamic pantheon, pre-eminently the great hero Iskandar Zulkarnain (Alexander the Great), as well as the first man, Adam, and the Raja of ‘Rum’, as the Ottoman lands were known in the east. These ahistorical genealogies are found in court chronicles such as the Hikayat Raja Pasai, Sulalat al-Salatin or Sejarah Melayu recounting the origins of the sultanate of Melaka, the Hikayat Banjar from southern Borneo, and Hikayat Jambi from east Sumatra, preceding the more factual elements of the texts.  

In the Sejarah Melayu, the sultans of Melaka are said to be descended from the union of Raja Iskandar (Zulkarnain) and the daughter of Raja Kidi Hindi. In this episode, Nabi Khidir marries the couple according to Islamic rites and asks Raja Iskandar if he agrees to the dowry of 300,000 gold dinars (‘Bahwa sudahlah hamba kahwinkan anak Raja Kidi Hindi yang bernama Syahral Bariah dengan Raja Iskandar, adapun isi kahwinnya tiga ratus ribu dinar emas 300,000, ridakah tuan hamba?’ Maka sahut Raja Iskandar, ‘Ridalah hamba’). British Library, Or. 14734, f.4v (detail)  noc

As well as depictions in prose, royal genealogies or silsilah are occasionally visualised as charts or diagrams, as found in three recently digitised Malay manuscripts depicting the ancestry of the royal houses of central Java (Or. 15932), of the kingdom of Pajajaran in west Java (MSS Malay F 1), and of Luwu’ in south Sulawesi (MSS Malay D 13). Artistically the most impressive is a genealogy in the form of a tree tracing the descent of the kings of Java, starting with Adam, placed in the roots of the tree, and ending in the outermost leaves with Sasunan Pakubuwana keempat (Pakubuwana IV of Surakarta) and Mataram keempat (Sultan Hamengkubuwana IV of Yogyakarta). The genealogy is found at the end of a volume containing the work Papakĕm Pawukon, containing an illustrated description of the 30 wuku of the Javanese calendrical tradition. The manuscript, in Javanese and in Malay in Jawi script, was written in Bogor in the Javanese year 1742 (AD 1814/5). It is said to be from Kyai Suradimanggala, Bupati sĕpuh of Dĕmak, who was one of Thomas Stamford Raffles’s closest friends and informants in Java.

Genealogy of the Javanese kingdoms, from Adam to Pakubuwana IV of Surakarta and Hambengkubuwana IV of Yogyakarta (Adapun ini suatu masyal pohon riwayat tahta kĕrajaan tanah Jawa). British Library, Or. 15932, f.72r  noc

Little is known of the early history of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Pajajaran in the Sundanese region of west Java, which was conquered by Muslim Banten in ca. 1579 (Ricklefs 1994: 38). A manuscript chart (MSS Malay F 1), just over a metre long, contains a genealogy written in romanised Malay starting with the legendary founder of Pajajaran, Prabu Siliwangi, and continuing through Suhunan Gunung Jati of Cirebon, one of the nine sages (wali) believed to have brought Islam to Java, to 'Pangeran Adipati Moehamad Djamoedin Aloeda' son of 'Pangeran Radja Nataningrat wakil Soeltan Sepoeh [of Cirebon] taoen 1880'. The list was probably written in the 1890s.  

First entries in the royal genealogy from west Java, starting with Prabu Siliwangi of Pajajaran, a MS chart in romanised Malay, ca. 1890s.  British Library, MSS Malay F 1 (detail, top)  noc

A third manuscript genealogy, like the west Javanese one above presented from top to bottom, but in this case written in Malay in Jawi script, is labelled 'Succession of the Datus of Luwu' (MSS Malay D 13) and contains the descent of the rulers of Luwu’, the oldest and most prestigious kingdom in south Sulawesi (see OXIS below). The genealogy starts with Orang Manurung and continues through 26 generations to Matinru ri Sabang Paru whose daughter married Sultan Nuh of Soppeng (r.1782-1820).

Genealogy of the rulers of Luwu' in South Sulawesi. British Library, MSS Malay D 13  noc

Perhaps the most grandiose narration of descent of a Malay royal house is depicted in a manuscript held not in the British Library, but in the Library of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). This is an early 20th century  genealogy of the ruling houses of pre-Islamic Persia, the Malay sultanates and Turkey, joined by their common ancestor Yapit, son of Nabi Nuh (Noah). The left-hand branch shows the descent of the sultans of Johor and Perak from Iskandar Zulkarnain and the kings of Persia and Melaka. The right-hand branch shows the Turkish line, through mythical rulers to the Seljuks and Ottomans, ending with Sultan Abdülhamid II (r.1876-1909). This genealogy was published in the photographic exhibition Islam, Trade and Politics across the Indian Ocean, exploring links between the Ottoman empire and Southeast Asia.

Genealogy of the sultans of Perak and Johor, early 20th c. Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, MS 40334

Further reading

J.J. Ras, Hikajat Bandjar: a study in Malay historiography.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968. (Bibliotheca Indonesica; 1).

M.C. Ricklefs, A history of modern Indonesia since c.1300. (2nd ed.)  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

OXIS (Origins of Complex Society in Sulawesi) project: website with many links to publications concerning Luwu' and other early Sulawesi kingdoms

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork