THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

24 February 2017

The Textual Heritage of the Ural Old Believers

In the second half of the seventeenth century, Patriarch Nikon reformed Russian church ceremonies and a range of traditional texts. The purpose of the reform was to merge Russian, Greek, Belorussian, and Ukrainian cultures. However, it led to a rupture with old Russian traditions. Russian society was split into two camps: the supporters of the reforms, ‘Nikonians’, and their opponents, the Old Believers. Old Belief was the largest opposition movement to emerge in Russia before 1905. They were cruelly persecuted by the state and the official Orthodox Church: they also suffered from repression during the Stalin era. However, despite all of the persecution, the Old Believers not only maintained Russian culture, but also developed and adapted it to new conditions.

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The texts maintained by the Old Believers belonged to a tradition formed over many centuries: it was based on Byzantine books that appeared in Russia along with Christianity. Russian scribes added their unique composition style to the Byzantine textual tradition, creating thematic collections (sborniki) based on both canonical and apocryphal Christian books. During the dispute with the official Orthodox Church, Old Believers reinterpreted many of the essays of early Christian writers, producing a great mass of original literature.

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From the end of the seventeenth century, the Urals became a centre of Old Belief; many fled there from central Russia to evade persecution. A group of researchers from the Historical Department of the Ural State University (now the Ural Federal University) organised archaeographical expeditions to Old Believer settlements spread across a huge territory stretching from the Volga to Western Siberia. These expeditions took place between 1974 and 2002.

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After decades of field work, almost 6,000 exemplars of this textual tradition (dating from the fifteenth to the late twentieth centuries) were collected. A wide range of manuscripts and printed books featuring all the elements of the old Russian textual tradition can be found in this collection.

The collections gathered by these expeditions include Old Believer textbooks (uchitel’nye sborniki), prayer books, polemics, eschatological essays, late Russian annals, items of a demographic and scientific character, and music sheets containing the old Russian form of musical notation (so called hooks).

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There is also a collection of archival documents: these include materials from local Old Believer councils, correspondence by outstanding twentieth-century leaders of Old Belief, and photos from the last decades of the imperial regime. All of these documents are extremely important for studying medieval culture, the adaptation of that culture to modern conditions, and its influence on Russia’s social and political history. They give us the opportunity to study local cultures surrounded by hostile authorities and can also be used to train specialists in history, philology, theology, and the arts.

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Presently, the collection is kept at the Laboratory of Studies in Archaeography of the Institute for the Humanities and the Arts (Ural Federal University). Here, a number of experts with experience of working on rare books and manuscripts are employed.

The condition of these collections requires comment. The age of these books ranges between 100 to 500 years: many arrived at the Laboratory in a very poor condition. They were damaged by fungus and were incredibly dirty: the paper was collapsing from oxidation. 90% of our collections need conservation and restoration. The staff of the Laboratory do their best in this regard.

As part of EAP556, we digitised 35 old books and manuscripts. We were able to take more than 20,000 digital photographs. You can find these copies both on the EAP site and the new site of our Laboratory.

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This has resulted in several important books and manuscripts being made freely available. These include:

The liturgical books known as Triod’ postnaya and the Gospels (Moscow, 1550s): these were some of the first printed books in Russia.

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Example of a Gospel cover

07b_Triod'Example of a Triod’

2) The first fully printed copy of the Holy Bible in Church-Slavonic (Ostrog, Rzecz Pospolita, 1581).

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3) An illuminated apocalypse with commentary by St Andrew of Caesaria. Tsar Peter the Great, his main assistant Alexander Men’shikov, and his wife Catherine I are pictured at the head of the Antichrist’s army.

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The Old Believer manuscript tradition was not extinguished by Soviet persecution. A brilliant example of this tradition is an eschatological essay written by a Ural Old Believer called Iradion Ural’skiy (late twentieth century).

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During the work on this project, we were able to complete an additional extremely important task: all of the books were placed in non-acidic boxes, thus helping us to preserve them.

We also have a restoration workshop where highly qualified restorers perform their delicate and complex work:

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We are continuing to study and preserve these valuable Old Believer books and manuscripts. Once again, we would like to thank the Endangered Archives Programme. It was real pleasure to work with EAP: there was very little red tape, the team was highly responsive, and much friendliness was offered. Participation in the programme has had a considerable impact on our future plans for digitisation. This year we plan to put another 20,000 pictures on our website Our researchers are disseminating knowledge about the textual heritage of Ural Old Belief by writing articles and monographs. One book about illustrated apocalypses, written by Irina Pochinskaya, the leader of our EAP project, and Natalia Anufrieva has recently been released. The book has a digital appendix containing several of the books copied during our project.

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Finally, we are attempting to popularise knowledge of Russian medieval and Old Believer culture. On our site, there is a special section devoted to essays that we think you will find extremely interesting. We also hope that you will enjoy the example of Old Believer singing: the music sheet was written hundreds of years ago while the singer is our PhD student Anna Mikheeva.

It has been a wonderful experience and we hope that this is only the beginning!

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Written by Irina Pochiskaya and Alexander Palkin

21 February 2017

What does one gift to the Dalai Lama?

Ever wondered what one would give to the new Dalai Lama if one had the opportunity to attend his enthronement ceremony?

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This file (1939-40), over 200 pages long, provides a chronological and detailed account of the planning and sourcing of gifts, articulated concerns and queries about culture, customs, and protocol, and vivid travel descriptions of the journey from Gangtok (Sikkim) to Lhasa (Tibet), for the infant Tenzing Gyatso’s official enthronement as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.  

Recognised as the official reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama in 1939, his enthronement ceremony as the next Dalai Lama was scheduled for 22 February, 1940 in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In Sikkim (which had close relations with Tibet, spiritually, culturally, economically, and familial), officials were deciding what gifts to send to Lhasa for the occasion, and who would represent the Sikkim State at this auspicious and once-in-a-lifetime ceremony.

Sikkim’s 11th Chogyal, Tashi Wangyal Namgyal (r.1914-1963), chose to send his eldest son, Crown Prince Kunzang Paljor Namgyal (1921-1941), and the British decided to send Basil Gould (Political Officer, Sikkim), who would have been more familiar with the cultures of the region.

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It seems Gould took it upon himself to write to the headmaster of Bishop’s Cotton School (Shimla) where Crown Prince Paljor was studying, informing the school of the Prince’s impending absence – and rather comically, it seems he felt that “…the condition of a boy’s teeth” was a “very important matter”!

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Meanwhile, the Chogyal’s office set to work brainstorming gifts to offer the new Dalai Lama, sourcing them from various vendors from Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and the Army and Navy Store, Calcutta. The gifts included, among other items: A pair of sporting rifles; a 12ft tiger skin; a clock; a writing attaché case, a silver tea set, a pair of binoculars, and a pair of English ponies — the latter evidently caused quite a bit of trouble in their procurement as the file goes on to illustrate!

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The Chogyal’s eldest brother, former Crown Prince Tsodag Namgyal (1877-1942) had been removed from the line of succesion by the British in the mid-1890s and had been living in Tibet ever since. His son, Jigme Sumtsen Wangpo Namgyal, was a big support in the Chogyal’s endeavours to pay respects to the Dalai Lama, and it has been interesting to see how little the political interference and geographical borders seem to have affected the strength of family ties.

On 22 January, 1940, the Chogyal writes to his nephew, Jigme Sumtsen, to inform him that due to Prince Paljor’s young age and the anticipated harsh winter weather, Sikkim will instead send the Pipon of Lachen1.

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The Chogyal asks his nephew to guide Pipon Sonam Wangyal in the elaborate, and oftentimes confusing, protocol of Lhasa aristocracy, and informs him that he is sending a tea set to Jigme Sumtsen in advance, as a token of his appreciation. 

On the 24 January, the Pipon sets off for Lhasa with four orderlies and arrives 13 days later on the 6 February, 1940. 

Meanwhile, the Chogyal accompanied by Prince Paljor and Princess Pema Tsedeun had left for Delhi to attend the investiture ceremony of the Viceroy of India. On their way back they visited Varanasi and Bodhgaya on Buddhist pilgrimage, and the correspondence between Chogyal and his nephew continued despite the hurdles of distance and difficulty of communication deriving from constant travel in early 20th century India. 

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These beautifully articulated, and oftentimes endearing letters, exchanged between uncle and nephew provide windows of insight into both mundane and courtly life of the era. The latter wonderfully illustrated with Jigme Sumtsen reporting to the Chogyal about the ceremony’s success, the reception of the gifts from Sikkim, and reference to the official letters of acknowledgement that are being carried back across the Himalayas by Pipon Wangyal.

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But where does one find a pair of English ponies on the Indian subcontinent in 1940? With the start of summer, the search began in earnest, and queries were sent out to Kalimpong, Calcutta, Bombay, and eventually to the Punjab, requesting information on ponies of a certain height and colour.

The Chogyal’s brother-in-law, a Bhutanese known as Raja Sonam Tobgay Dorji (1896-1953) was based in Kalimpong, and he along with Sergul Tsering (Sikkim’s Vetinary Inspector) travelled to Calcutta, where on the 9 September, after visiting various stables across the city, they found a promising young pony at Dum Dum stable. One down!

From there, on the 13 September, the Veterinary Inspector took a 200 rupee advance and continued on to a firm in Punjab which had a reputation of breeding good English horses, and there he was able to procure the second horse for 1,500 Indian rupees.

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By early October, the horses were sent up to Lhasa, again with the logistical help and facilitation of Jigme Sumtsen, and presented to the Dalai Lama’s office. Jigme Sumtsen’s letters back to the Chogyal indicate that the officials in Tibet were both impressed and very happy with the horses, and that above and beyond, they were the tallest horses in the stables of the Potala Palace!

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Among other highlights, this file illustrates the frugality of expenditures with meticulous financial accounts of the trip, including the Pipon’s monthly payment (70 rupees; plus 50 rupees for warm clothes); the cost of the travels; and his use of the 50 allocated letter papers, 50 envelopes, 1 pencil, 2 penholders and a pocket book. It includes beautifully written letters from Tibet on handmade parchment paper, and gives insight into the workings of the Sikkim Palace’s administration, as well as the nature of their relationship with both Tibet and the British Empire.

So, if you ever find yourself in a position where you need to present gifts at an enthronement ceremony, this archive might be just what you need...

1. Lachen is a wide valley village in North Sikkim known for its unique system of local community governance, known as the ‘Dzumsa.’ The rotating head of the Dzumsa is refered to by the title ‘Pipon’ (and interestingly, this form of local governance is still practiced today with semi-autonomy within the wider state adminstration).

Written by

Pema Abrahams, grant holder for EAP880

09 February 2017

New collections online - February 2017

This month we have three new collections added to the EAP website: Buddhist manuscripts from Laos, and Tamil and Burmese studio photography.

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EAP737/4/4/31 - Studio Portrait Photo Prints [1955-1978]

EAP737: Representing Self and Family. Preserving early Tamil studio photography

Photography arrived in India in the 1840s with the first photographic society in South India being created in Madras in 1856. During the early decades of Indian photography, the constraints and costs of acquiring photographic equipment meant that photography was accessible almost exclusively to the colonial administration and Indian elite. However by the 1880s, commercial photography studios had found their way into the bazaars of the Presidency’s medium size towns, and family portraits started to appear inside Tamil households. In South India, prior to the arrival of commercial photography, there existed no local forms of popular portraiture aside from the representations of divinities. The early Tamil commercial studio photographers created their own visual language to represent south India selves and families, combining the uses of props, accessories, backdrops, over-painting, collage and montage.

There is a real urgency in preserving these photographs. Many of the earlier photographs produced by the commercial photo studios are showing signs of deterioration due to some of the chemical processes used for developing and printing during the first decades of photographic production. The climatic conditions of South India are extremely detrimental for photographic prints and negatives, even for those printed from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. With the advent of mechanised processing and printing followed by the digital revolution in photography, many of the old photo studios have closed down and their archives of glass-plate negatives and film negatives have been destroyed, either through lack of interest or space to conserve them.

The project team were able to conduct fieldwork in the eight target towns (Chennai, Coimbatore, Cuddalore, Karaikudi, Kumbakonam, Madurai, Pondicherry, Tirunelveli), and were also able to carry out surveys in an additional six towns (Chidambaram, Jayamkundan, Meencuruti, Pollachi, Tindivanam, Villupuram). In each locality, the oldest photo studios where sought out and in total 100 photo studios were approached over the course of the pilot project. In many instances, but not all, the owners of the photo collections have given their consent for future digitisation of their archives. Also, family members of studios which have closed down over the last 30 years were also sought out as some of them still hold the archives of the old family business.

This survey has confirmed that these unique photographic productions are severely endangered by chemical, climatic and human factors and their digitisation is urgent. The team members have noted that in most of the cases, either the owners had destroyed whole collections for lack of interest or lack of space, or the remaining photographic material is in a state of severe degradation due to poor conservation conditions.

The project team were able to digitise a sample of around 1000 photographs from some of the studios surveyed, from private family collections, and from those purchased by the team in local second-hand shops.

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EAP737/4/3/8 - Events Negatives Box 30 [1962]

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EAP737/4/4/31 - Studio Portrait Photo Prints [1955-1978]

EAP691: Rare manuscripts of great Buddhist thinkers of Laos: digitisation, translation and relocation at the 'Buddhist Archive of Luang Prabang'

The project was able to describe and digitise the personal collections of manuscripts used by several great Buddhist abbots of Luang Prabang in Laos. The manuscripts present valuable insight into the diverse intellectual interests of leading Theravada thinkers of the 20th century in one of the least known Buddhist cultures in the world. Notwithstanding its rich culture, deeply influenced by Theravada Buddhism, Laos is still one of the least researched countries of Southeast Asia. During the second half of the 20th century, significant parts of the country’s cultural heritage have been destroyed, or seriously damaged, due to foreign interventions, civil war, and revolution. As a great surprise to international researchers, Buddhist monks of Luang Prabang, the ancient Royal capital, managed to preserve important parts of Lao heritage.

The project was able to describe and digitise the personal collections of manuscripts used by Pha Khamchan Virachitto (Vat Saen Sukharam), Pha Khamfan Silasangvara (Vat Suvannakhili), and Pha Bunchankeo Phothichitto (Vat Xiang Muan). Colophons and other paratexts (such as prefaces and titles) were transcribed into modern Lao. Roughly half of the manuscripts have such colophons which in most cases mention not only the date when the writing of the manuscript was finished, but also the names of sponsors and donors of the manuscripts and, more rarely, the name of the scribes. Preservation work has also been carried out on the original manuscripts which are now stored under safer and more accessible conditions

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EAP691/3/2/18 - Thanakhan Ban Pai ( fascicle no.5) (ທານະຂັນບັ້ນປາຍຜູກ 5) (1674)

EAP898: Myanmar negative record

This project aimed to set out to investigate the remaining negative archives and collections of local Burmese photographers. The project was able to identify two studios in Yangon that agreed to have some of the negatives in their archives digitised. The majority of the negatives come from the Bellay Photo Studio, with a smaller collection digitised from Asia Studio.

The owner of the Bellay Photo Studio, Tun Tun Lay, agreed to the digitisation of some of the negatives taken by his father, Har Si Yoi, starting in 1963, only one year after General Ne Win’s coup d’état. The images taken in the studio capture life during the so-called ‘lost decades’ and present a unique insight into this time period, as there are no archives in Myanmar or abroad that hold a comprehensive collection of images from those decades. Bellay Photo Studio is run by an ethnically Chinese family and many of the clients were Chinese-Burmese as well. A community that suffered greatly during Ne Win’s Burmese Way of Socialism; they were persecuted, their properties were nationalised, and finally a ban on Chinese-language education was issued, which forced a major exodus of Burmese-Chinese to other countries. The negatives at the studio used to be stored in two large wooden cabinets which were destroyed by termites and humidity along with more than 50% of the negatives. The loose negatives, which had been kept in envelopes, have been stored in plastic bags since 2012.

Another small but important archive of 134 negatives, including glass plates, was archived on the outskirts of Yangon. The grandson of the famed Asia Studio proprietor, U Kyawt, allowed the project to digitise a small section of his collection. The negatives and plates are stored in a wooden box without any kind of protection. The images include press photography capturing Aung San who is considered to be the Father of the Nation of modern-day Myanmar and a hero for his struggle for independence. He is also the father of politician and current Minister of Foreign affairs, Aung San Suu Kyi. The images were taken in the 1940s; Aung San was assassinated in 1947. The Asia Studio archive holds many more valuable images that are at risk due to the storage environment.

The digitised negatives form a very important record from after Myanmar’s independence and will allow not only researchers in the West but also Burmese to access the unique photographic culture of their past that documented everyday life and how Burmese citizens wanted to be portrayed. This is especially true for the images from Bellay Photo Studio, as they represent various communities of Yangon in the late 1960s and 70s.

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EAP898/1/1 - Asia Studio [1940s-1950s]

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EAP898/1/1 - Asia Studio [1940s-1950s]

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EAP898/2/1 - Bellay Studio [1969-1982]