THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

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

26 September 2016

Where’s Arjuna? Renaming the Monoliths of Mahabalipuram

The ancient capital of Mahabalipuram stands on India’s Coromandel coastline, facing one of ancient Asia’s most famous and lucrative shipping channels. Its formidable 7th-century stone monuments, many of which were hewn from single granite boulders, were created under the Pallava Dynasty over 1300 years ago. These caves, temples and monoliths all bear witness to the power and wealth of the Pallava kings responsible for their construction. Today, Mahabalipuram is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Many of the monuments at Mahabalipuram show scenes from stories and legends that were important to the Pallava kings. One of these scenes, taken from the Mahabharata, shows the actions of Arjuna, one of the story’s five Pandava brothers.

Two monuments at Mahabalipuram relate to Arjuna. The first of these is the massive sculpted cliff face showing Arjuna performing penance to Shiva, in order to receive “weapons” to augment his warrior abilities. The second monument dedicated to Arjuna is one of the five monolithic stone “rathas” (chariots) which stand in a group on Mahabalipuram’s beach. Unlike the sculpted cliff face, this second monument doesn’t bear any visible narrative connection with Arjuna from the Mahabharata. Why is this?

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View of the Five Rathas at Mahabalipuram, 23 July 1816. British Library, WD 2625 Noc

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Sculpted Cliff Face at Mahabalipuram, 1808. British Library, WD 2624 Noc

Two of the earliest written accounts from Mahabalipuram, written in 1799 and 1803, provide an astonishing explanation for the seemingly random naming of the Arjuna Ratha. The monument that is today called the Arjuna Ratha was only given this name a little over 200 years ago. Previously, the same ratha was named after Sahadeva, Arjuna’s youngest brother in the Mahabharata. Before this change occurred, there was another ratha named after Arjuna at Mahabalipuram, but it was nowhere near the group of five rathas on Mahabalipuram’s beach. It was a solitary monolith located on a rocky hill, close to the sculpted cliff face showing the “Arjuna’s Penance” relief.

In 1799, the old Arjuna Ratha was described as “cut out of one stone from bottom to top: & a Lingum placed in it... the people told me that Rajah Arjoon prayed to this image of Seevoo for a considerable time when he was here...” The Arjuna Ratha of the 18th century was connected with the famous sculpted cliff face showing Arjuna doing penance to Shiva. The precious linga inside the original Arjuna Ratha, alongside the incredible sculpted cliff face, worked together to localise the narrative of “Arjuna’s Penance” amidst Mahabalipuram’s rocky, seaside landscape.

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The original Arjuna Ratha (now called the Ganesha Ratha) at Mahabalipuram. British Library, Photo 472/1(28) Noc

The old Arjuna Ratha was renamed the Ganesha Ratha in the early 19th century. The account of the site gathered in 1803 explains why:
“... [In]the Chariot of Arjoonoo, [which is] cut out of one stone the people say that herein formerly was one Image of Seevoo: but some years ago an English Gentleman carried it away [and] afterward the village Bramins placed a Ganasa in its place...”
Thus at some point between 1799 and 1803, the linga inside the old Arjuna Ratha was stolen. This meant that the old Arjuna Ratha could no longer fulfill its distinctive narrative function as the place where Arjuna worshiped Shiva. The linga’s replacement with an image of Ganesha is poignant because Ganesha, “the remover of obstacles”, is the deity that people appeal to in times of difficulty.

In response to the linga’s loss, Arjuna’s location at Mahabalipuram shifted to the stand of five rathas on the beach. The ratha that had been occupied by Sahadeva, the youngest of the Mahabharata’s five Pandava brothers, was renamed the Arjuna Ratha in the early 19th century, and Sahadeva ended up moving into the same ratha as his older twin brother, Nakula. This explains why the monument called the Nakula Ratha in the 18th century was renamed the Nakula-Sahadeva Ratha in the 19th century.

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The original Sahadeva Ratha (now called the Arjuna Ratha) at Mahabalipuram. British Library, Photo 1003/(2226) Noc

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The original Nakula Ratha (now called the Nakula Sahadeva Ratha) at Mahabalipuram. British Library, Photo 27/(64) Noc

Two Telugu Brahmins, who also happened to be brothers, gathered the accounts at Mahabalipuram that recorded these changes. Now part of the British Library’s Mackenzie Collection, the accounts gathered by Kavali Boriah in 1799, and Kavali Laksmiah in 1803, prove that the names of monuments at Mahabalipuram were not fixed, and that the meaning behind Hindu temples, even when they are carved out of solid stone, can always be reinterpreted.

Further reading:

Dalrymple, William. “A History of Indian Art Through Five Monuments. Part 2: Mahabalipuram.” Sutra Journal, February 2016.

Dehejia, Vidya. “A Riddle in Stone: Pallava Mamallapuram.” Chapter 8 in Dehejia, V. Indian Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.

Howes, Jennifer. “Colin Mackenzie, the Madras School of Orientalism, and Investigations at Mahabalipuram”. Chapter 3 in Trautmann, T. The Madras School of Orientalism: Producing Knowledge in Colonial India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Kaimal, Padma. “Playful Ambiguity and Political Authority in the Large Relief at Mamallapuram.” Ars Orientalis, 24, pp. 1-27.

Kavali, Venkata Boriah. “Account of the Ruins & Sculptures at Mahavellyporam by Cavely Venkata Boria Bramin sent to Captain Colin Mackenzie to explain them.” December 1799. British Library, Mss Eur Mackenzie General 21, ff.281-286.

Kavali, Venkata Laksmiah. “Particular List of the Gods Goddesses Radums or Chariots, Muntapums nd other Sculptures now remaining at Mahavellyporam. “ May 1803. British Library, Mss Eur Mackenzie General 21, ff. 299-314.

Jennifer Howes, Independent Art Historian Ccownwork

19 September 2016

Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Phase 1 completed

The Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project has been digitising the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection since 2013. The Library’s collection is one of the most important in the world, and this project has enabled us to make the manuscripts freely available to view online, transforming access for scholars and the public worldwide.

Funded by The Polonsky Foundation, we have now completed Phase 1 of the project, with 1,300 manuscripts available to search and view online. The digitised collection includes medieval and early modern codices, single sheets, charters and scrolls, as well as an oak board (Or 6302). The oldest item we have digitised is Or 4445, the London Codex, a copy of the Pentateuch from 920-950.

This phase has taken 3 years, 435,307 image captures and 37TB of storage space, an incredible achievement by a dedicated team of conservators (including a specialist textile conservator), photographers, cataloguers and quality control officers, with expert support from Lead Curator Ilana Tahan, and enriching digital scholarship including the creation of our website and 3D models. See this video for an overview of the project and the different stages of the digitisation process.

The digitised manuscripts can be viewed on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. The viewer is searchable by keyword or shelfmark, and manuscripts can be viewed as single pages or in ‘open book’ format, and can be zoomed in to provide high levels of detail on illuminations, micrography, and the grain of the paper or parchment. A full list of all of the manuscripts digitised by Phase 1 of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (and all of the catalogue records) can be found here.

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The viewer of the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website showing an open-book view with zoom of folios 5v-6r from Add MS 11639, ‘The Northern French Miscellany’, France 1277-1324. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. Noc

Digital access to manuscripts not only saves much time and effort spent travelling to the Library, but also makes the content much more visible. We have already seen how this has increased access, research, and opportunities for innovation using the Hebrew collection. It has also enabled us to reveal illegible and hidden text and images. For some of the more over-sized items, such as the scrolls, digitisation provides a unique opportunity to view them opened out fully, which would be impossible with the physical manuscript due to their size and fragility. As more institutions begin to digitise their collections and publish them online, manuscripts from the British Library’s Hebrew collection can now be compared with manuscripts from the collections of other institutions, from all over the world.

I’d now like to share with you three of my personal highlights from the Hebrew collection, now all available to view online.

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Detail from ‘Kaifeng Torah Scroll’, China 1643-1663. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. British Library, Add MS 19250  Noc

This is a Torah scroll from the Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng (Add MS 19250), one of the seven ancient capitals of China. This scroll may have been made between 1643–1663. It is 42 metres long, which is very long for a Torah scroll, but not as long as the collection’s longest scroll, which is over 52 metres long. The Kaifeng scroll is made of 94 strips of soft sheepskin, sewn together with silk thread (usually Torah scrolls are sewn together with animal sinew). As well as being incredibly rare and beautiful, this silk-route scroll tells a really interesting story about a remote Jewish community.

There is evidence of Jews in Kaifeng from as early as the first century CE. The community’s everyday activities incorporated customs unusual for China (such as abstinence from pork), as well as traditional Chinese practice (such as binding of feet). Jesuit missionaries came across the Jewish community in Kaifeng in the 1600s, and were particularly intrigued by their Torah scrolls, as they hoped that due to the community's isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, their scripture would be ‘uncorrupted originals’ of the Old Testament, shedding new light on Christian interpretations. In the 1800s, in response to the growing interest in their Torah scrolls, the Kaifeng community obliged collectors by selling them several copies. The contents of these Torah scrolls turned out to be identical to that of conventional scripture. This scroll was bought by missionaries in 1851, and presented to the British Museum in 1852.

The full scroll can be viewed on the Digitised Manuscripts website here.

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Letter of Jacob Rafael of Modena, Italy 1530. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. reply of Jacob Rafael of Modena. British Library, Arundel MS 151, f. 191r Noc

At first glance the Hebrew manuscript shown above (Arundel MS 151) may not look like much, but it demonstrates a less well-known but fascinating aspect of one of the most famous events in English history – the divorce of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1533. This manuscript is bound in a volume called 'Letters and Papers relative to the divorce of Henry VIII', which also includes correspondence from Cardinal Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner, and the King himself. So where does Hebrew come into it?

Catherine of Aragon married Henry VIII in 1509, after his brother Arthur had died. The Jewish law of levirate marriage was one of the ways that this strategically advantageous marriage was justified (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Years later, Jewish law was also used to try and justify their divorce. The king had teams of scholars study Jewish law, and thought that there might be a loophole due to a prohibition against marrying a sister-in-law (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). This ‘sin’ is punished by childlessness, which Henry may have felt was reflected in his own situation (with only a daughter).

The king sent a delegation to Italy to discuss this loophole with learned Jews (Jews had been expelled from England in 1290). This letter is the reply of Jacob Rafael of Modena, who did not give the answer the king was looking for. He stated that the law of levirate marriage overrode the prohibition in Leviticus, and therefore Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid and could not be annulled on those grounds.

The full letter (folios 190r-191v) can be viewed on the Digitised Manuscripts website here.

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Detail from Book of Esther, Germany 1600-1699. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. British Library,  Or 1047  Noc

This beautiful illuminated scroll of the Book of Esther is from Germany from the 17th century (Or 1047). It is just under 4 metres long. This scroll needed a lot of conservation work before it could be digitised, as at some point in its history, it had been backed onto material when damp. This had caused a lot of crinkling and contractions as it dried, risking flaking the illuminations and tearing the scroll. The conservation process was incredibly painstaking, involving very carefully removing the backing as slowly and carefully as possible.

This scroll is illustrated with the story of Esther, read by Jewish people during the festival of Purim. The illuminations show the whole story, from the beauty contest for the new queen at the beginning, the political machinations of the main characters, to the violent and bloody ending. It includes some of the exegetical interpretations of the story within the illuminations and the text: the hidden presence of god in the story is emphasised with god’s name highlighted in the lettering. It also includes contemporary images of people enjoying the revelry typically associated with the festival of Purim, a graphic circumcision scene, a Venetian galleon, two elephants and a rhinoceros.

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Detail from Book of Esther, Germany 1600-1699. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. British Library, Or 1047 Noc

The full manuscript can be viewed on the Digitised Manuscripts website here.

Phase 2 of the Hebrew project, in partnership with the National Library of Israel, began digitising the remainder of the Library’s Hebrew manuscript in April 2016. This phase will include the digitisation of the manuscript collection that belonged to Moses Gaster, and the Library’s Samaritan manuscript collection.

Miriam Lewis, Project Manager, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork

12 September 2016

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned: the legend of the bell of Dōjō-ji

This famous English saying - often misattributed to William Shakespeare, but actually a partially paraphrased quotation from William Congreve - could apply to many tragic tales from all over the world through the centuries. Here we will introduce a famous Japanese story featuring one such jilted woman, associated with the ancient temple of Dōjō-ji 道成寺 in Kii province (modern Wakayama) in Japan.

Dōjō-ji is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Senju Kannon 千手観音 or Avalokiteśvara “With a thousand arms and eyes” and his flanking attendants Nikkō Bosatsu (日光菩薩  Suryaprabha) and Gakkō Bosatsu (月光菩薩 Candraprabha). Dōjō-ji is believed to have been established in 701. Senju Kannon’s thousand arms and eyes symbolise the depth of his compassion (慈悲Jihi), keeping his eyes on all living things and extending his hands to anyone suffering from hardship.

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Ofuda of Dōjō-ji Senju Kannon (highlighted above). From a collection of ca. 330 Japanese amulets printed up to the 1880's, mounted in 5 albums. [Ofuda harikomichō : Daiei Toshokanzō お札貼込帳 : 大英図書館蔵] British Library, 16007.d.1(2)30-33r Noc
 
Although there are a number of variations on the story of tragic romance and the Dōjō-ji bell, the most famous version is that of Anchin安珍 and Kiyohime 清姫. Anchin is a handsome young trainee monk who catches the eye of a local maiden called Kiyohime. Kiyohime is very attracted to Anchin, but this story doesn’t have a happy ending!

As a novice monk Anchin has no intention of falling in love with a woman, and therefore in order to escape from his admirer Kiyohime he tells her he has to go away, but falsely promises that he will come back for her. He dashes away, but she chases after him. He gets to the river and attempts to escape by crossing the river by boat, but Kiyohime does not give up easily, and dives into the water and swims after him.

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Kiyohime chases Anchin as he flees across the Hidaka River in his boat. Dōjō-ji emaki 道成寺絵巻.
Manuscript scroll. National Diet Library

As Anchin flees from Kiyohime, he sees her gradually transforming herself from a young girl into a scaly creature while continuing to pursue him. Anchin is horrified and asks the monks at Dōjō-ji to rescue him. The monks sympathise with Anchin and give him a hiding place, inside the bell of the temple, but it is too late: Kiyohime has already turned into a fire serpent. Persistent Kiyohime, who is no longer a woman but a fiery demon, wraps herself around the bell, and burns Anchin to death inside the bell.

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Consumed by anger a desperate Kiyohime transforms herself into a fire serpent. Dōjō-ji emaki 道成寺絵巻. Manuscript scroll. National Diet Library

The story has many variations and sequels, and its basic theme of transformation has inspired numerous Kabuki and Bunraku puppet plays as well as other dramatic and literary forms including No drama.

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Monks preparing for the ceremony of reinstalling the bell. Dōjō-ji utai ezu 道成寺謡絵図. Manuscript, mid Edo period (ca. 18 century). British Library, Or.977 Noc

Returning to the narrative, one spring the restoration of the bell is finished and the monks of Dōjō-ji are looking forward to a ceremony for reinstalling the bell. They forbid women to participate because of the tragic memories associated with the previous bell. However, one girl manages to sneak in to the venue on the pretext that she would like to perform a dedicatory dance for blessing the new bell.

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A girl pretending to dance for the dedication for the new bell. Dōjō-ji utai ezu 道成寺謡絵図. Manuscript, mid Edo period (ca. 18 century). British Library, Or.977 Noc

As it turns out she is the incarnation of the fire serpent who burned the man to death in the old bell. She deeply opposes the new bell being placed in Dōjō-ji and wants to prevent the monks from celebrating it. The monks are taken by surprise, and immediately pray to exorcise the demon woman, in order to protect the bell and to defend the temple from supernatural interference.

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Monks vs the demon woman.  Dōjō-ji utai ezu 道成寺謡絵図. Manuscript, mid Edo period (ca. 18 century ). British Library, Or.977  Noc

Although the monks successfully defeat the vengeful sprit, eventually the bell is sent to another temple in Kyoto. Ultimately all the departed souls related to the Dōjō-ji bell legend, including the jilted woman who changed into a demon and took her revenge on the man who had spurned her, are placated and granted peaceful rest by the virtues of Buddha.

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned" is the full quotation from William Congreve's 'The Mourning Bride' (1697). Probably the fundamental message in this story is a lesson for life. Rage is often caused by our own misunderstandings, and we should not lay blame on a fate imposed on us by heaven or hell.

References:

Dōjō-ji Home page

演目事典:道成寺

狂言の絵画資料の収集 その四 - 東洋哲学研究所

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned." The Mourning Bride. William Congreve (1670-1729)
「天には、愛が憎しみに変わったような激しい怒りは無く、地獄にも蔑まれた女の烈火の怒りのようなものはない。」

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese collections Ccownwork