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

16 June 2017

Malay and Indonesian manuscripts exhibited in 1960

Until 1972 the British Library formed part of the British Museum. Its exhibition cases were located in the great King’s Library wing, built in 1827 to house the royal collection of over 60,000 books formed by King George III (1760–1820) and given to the nation in 1823 by his son King George IV. From July to August 1960, the King’s Library hosted ‘Books from the East: an exhibition of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books’ which aimed ‘to show something of the richness and variety of oriental literature’ through ‘books and manuscripts which stand out from the rest on account of their beauty, rarity, early date or unusual form’.

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Interior of the King's Library, British Museum, by Frederick Hawkesworth S. Shepherd (1877–1948). The display cases visible continued to be used for books and manuscripts until the 1990s, when the British Library moved to St. Pancras.

One of the 22 cases in the exhibition 'Books from the East' was dedicated to eight Malay and Indonesian manuscripts, described below in the exhibition leaflet:

“In the centre are two Malay manuscripts: a Proclamation of 1811 by Sir Stamford Raffles written in the Malayan Arabic script, called Jawi, which is slowly being replaced by the modern romanised script; and the other – a seventeenth century translation of the Psalms of David – is in an early romanised script used by Dutch missionaries in the Netherlands East Indies. (Or.9484; Sloane 3115.) Two Javanese illuminated manuscripts are shown – A History of Kingdom of Mataram in East Java, which reached the peak of its power in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (Add.12,287); and a Pawukon or Treatise on Judicial Astrology with coloured figure drawings illustrating the text (Add.12,338). The very large Buginese book is an example of the interesting Court Diaries that were kept by the Bugis in the Celebes from at least the seventeenth century. (Add.12,354.) Two Batak bark books with wooden covers, from Sumatra, are also shown (Add.19381 and Or.11761) together with a wooden tubular section cut from a length of large bamboo, and inscribed with the Batak alphabet (Or.5309). Both of the books are manuals of divination and magic.”

This display from 1960 has been reassembled here in photographic form below, with hyperlinks to digitised versions and relevant blog posts.

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Proclamation of the capture of Batavia by the British, 11 August 1811, in Malay in Jawi script. British Library, Or 9484

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Psalms of David in Malay, late 17th century, probably written in the Moluccas. British Library, Sloane 3115, ff. 10v-11r

Add 12287 (2)
Babad Sejarah Mataram, Javanese history of the kingdom of Mataram from Adam to the fall of Kartasura; this copy early 19th c. British Library, Add 12287, ff. 3v-4r

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Pawukon, Javanese calendrical compilation with illustrations of the gods and goddesses associated with each week (wuku), 1807. British Library, Add 12338, ff. 92v-93r

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Bugis diary of Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin of Bone (r.1775-1812). British Library, Add 12354, ff. 17v-18r

Add 19381 (5)
Pustaha in Mandailing-Batak from north Sumatra, containing esoteric texts on divination and protection, showing on the right pictures of a labyrinth and the seal of Solomon, early 19th c. British Library, Add. 19381

Or 5309 - b
Bamboo cylinder with Batak syllabary, 19th c. British Library, Or. 5309

Or 11761 (1)
Pustaha in Simalungun-Batak, with nicely decorated wooden covers, a plaited bamboo strap, and carrying string. British Library, Or. 11761  noc

In subsequent years the King's Library witnessed more exhibitions of maritime Southeast Asian material, including Early Malay Printing 1603-1900, held from 20 January to 4 June 1989, and Paper and Gold: illuminated manuscripts from the Indonesian archipelago, held from 11 July to 27 October 1990. But 'Books from the East' appears to have been the first occasion on which Malay and Indonesian manuscripts were included in a thematic temporary exhibition in the British Museum.

Further reading:

M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014. 

Golden Letters: writing traditions of Indonesia / Surat Emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia. Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps.  London: British Library; Jakarta: Yayasan Lontar, 1991

Download 1989-Early Malay Printing

Download 1990-Paper and Gold

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

12 June 2017

Portraits of Dara Shikoh in the Treasures Gallery

Visitors to the Treasures Gallery at the British Library may notice that the display of Dara Shikoh album pages have changed. On exhibition are eight folios from the Dara Shikoh Album (Add.Or.3129), one of the great treasures of the Asian and African department. The album was compiled by Prince Dara Shikoh (1615–59), the eldest son and heir of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, and presented as a gift to his wife Nadira Banu Begum in 1646-47, whom he married in 1633. A new selection went into the gallery at the end of May in time for the Jaipur Literature Festival. You can find these in the Arts of the Book section near the entrance to the Magna Carta. For information on the previous display, please read our blog post on 'New Display of Dara Shikoh Album'.

The album contains seventy-four folios with sixty-eight paintings interspersed with calligraphy and gilt tooled leather covers.  Inside the album, paintings are arranged in facing pairs alternating with facing pages of calligraphy. The album features eighteen portraits of Dara Shikoh, portraits of princes and notable women of the court, holy men, and studies of natural history subjects. 

In this new display, visitors can view a set of facing portraits of Dara Shikoh as a teenager, approximately 15-18 years of age. This complementary set  features the prince standing against blossoming shrubs. He is dressed in fine white muslin garment worn over vivid coloured trousers. In both studies, he is adorned in necklaces composed of enormous pearls, jewelled bracelets and earrings. On the portrait to the right, he holds a gold tray containing two loose pearls and a red spinel.

Add Or 3129 f36 Add Or 3129 f35v
Portraits of Prince Dara Shikoh, unknown artists, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.36 and f.35v.

The second pair of portraits features women at the Mughal court. This includes an unidentified beauty of the court and a  portrait of Dara Shikoh’s elder sister Jahanara who was an influential political figure and profoundly spiritual. She wrote ‘The Confidant of Spirits’, a biography of the Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti in 1640.

Add Or 3129 f14  Add Or 3129 f 13v

[Left] A lady of the court, by an unknown artist from Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.14. [Right] Princess Jahanara aged 18, attributed to Lalchand, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1632. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.13v. 

The remaining four works on display were not intended as pairs, but are representative works from the album. This includes a study of two pigeons perched beside a portable dovecote, a pink crown imperial lily (one of eighteen floral studies in the album), a calligraphic exercise by Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri who was one of the most eminent calligraphers during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar (1555-1605), and an engraving of the Virgin and Child by either a Dutch or Italian artist from the 16th or 17th century.

Add Or 3129 f31v  Add Or 3129 f62 Add Or 3129 f40v
[Left] Two pigeons. [Right] A pink lily, artists unknown, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. Calligraphic exercise by Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri, northern India, c. 1590; flowers added, c. 1630. British Library, Add Or 3129, f. 31v, f.62, and f.40v.

For our audience and readers unfamiliar with the history of Mughal art, the European engraving pasted onto a Mughal album page may appear to be unconventional or even eccentric. In this album, the facing page too features western prints picturing St. Catherine of Sienna by Antonia Caranzano and a print of St. Margaret pasted into a Mughal album page.  Artists at the Mughal court were in fact exposed to European engravings, specifically Christian iconography, through Jesuit missionaries who visited the court of Emperor Akbar from 1580 onwards. Mughal artists were commissioned by Akbar and his son Jahangir to illustrate scenes on the life of Christ. While Mughal interpretations of Christian themes and studies of foreign visitors appear in albums, the original prints that inspired such works are more uncommon.

Add Or 3129 f42v
Engraving of the Virgin and Child by a Dutch or Italian artist, 16th or 17th century, British Library, Add Or 3129, f.42v


Further reading:

Falk, T., and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, London, 1981
Inayat Khan, The Shah Jahan Nama of ‘Inayat Khan, trans. A.R. Fuller, ed. W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1990  
Losty, J.P., ‘Dating the Dara Shikoh Album: the Floral Evidence’, in Ebba Koch and Ali Anooshahr, eds., The Mughal Empire under Shah Jahan (1628-58) – New trends of research, forthcoming
Losty, J.P., and Roy, M., Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012
Losty, J.P., 'Mughal flower studies and their European inspiration', Asian and African Studies Blog, 14 March 2014.
Sims-Williams, Ursula, 'Princess Jahanara's biography of a Sufi saint', Asian and African Studies Blog, 01 February 2013.

 

07 June 2017

Pem nem: a 16th-century Urdu romance goes on-line

One of the treasures of the Urdu manuscript collection at the British Library has been digitised and made available online. The Pem Nem (Add.16880) is one of the finest examples of manuscript illustration from the court of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II, who ruled the kingdom of Bijapur from 1580 to 1627. Containing 34 miniature paintings illustrating the Sufi love story of prince Shah Ji and princess Mah Ji, the manuscript was written by an author by the name of Hasan Manju Khalji, bearing the pen name of Hans.

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Left: The hero, Shah Ji, faints at his first sight of his beloved, Mah Ji (BL Add.16680, f. 82v)
Right: The hero, Shah Ji is enflamed with passion (BL Add.16680, f. 87r)
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While the author claims in the introduction that the manuscript was written in the year 999 AH (1590/91 CE), scholars doubt that this claim is more than an attempt to harmonise the year of the manuscript's production with Ibrahim Adil Shah II's fixation with the nauras, the nine rasas or essences/flavours art. The introduction tells us that the body of the poem contains 199 rhyming couplets (dohas, two lines of seven syllables) and 999 quatrains (caupais, four lines with the rhyme ABCB), and praises the 99 names of God, suggesting that the text is indeed structured around the ruler's fixation with the number nine. Although the dating of the text to the exact year of 999 AH may be no more than poetic license, the art historian and expert on the Bijapur court, Deborah Hutton, has identified stylistic and textual details that allow the creation of the manuscript to be safely dated to the period 1591-1604 (Hutton, 'The Pem Nem', p. 45).

Originally mis-identified in Blumhardt's Catalogue of Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani Manuscripts (1899) as a variation on the Padmavat of Jayyasi, the text of the manuscript was later studied by the eminent Urdu scholar, David Matthews, who describes the spiritual love story of the two main protagonists that differs from the Padmavat and is a unique work, although it shares the central feature of narrating a spiritual quest through the trope of a love story.

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Left: Convinced that Mah Ji is only a reflection of the image in his heart, he weeps a stream a tears (BL Add.16680, f. 90v)
Right: Mah Ji passing time with her companions during her period of separation and longing, playing board games and tending to pet birds (BL Add.16680, f. 135r)
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Not unlike other Persianate tales of spiritual awakening and the search for truth, the story begins with the hero, Shah Ji, encountering an image of his as-yet-unseen beloved, Mah Ji, brought to him by a tortoise, while Mah Ji receives a similar portrait-via-tortoise delivery. The two main characters fall deeply in love (Matthews, 'Pem Nem', p. 174). This curious scene, quite unfortunately, is not pictured among the illustrations of the manuscript. The hero's love for the heroine is uniquely depicted through the innovative visual metaphor of the princess' image appearing on his breast throughout the illustrations.   After falling in love, Shah Ji embarks on a journey to find his beloved, which takes him to an island where his paternal uncle rules as king, and where his daughter, Shah Ji's beloved, resides.   Upon finding his beloved, Shah Ji faints, and then later refuses to believe that Mah Ji is anything more than a pale reflection of the image on his chest, who he mistakes for the real beloved. In a case of mistaking the real for the reflection, Shah Ji abandons Mah Ji. At this point, the text integrates the Indic baramasa genre, which depicts the emotions of the different seasons as the twelve months of the year pass, into the Persian masnavi tradition, or Sufi love story of spiritual awakening written in narrative verse.   During her period of abandonment, Mah Ji is depicted as aflame with longing - quite literally on fire - for her absent lover, just as the same striking visual metaphor was used to paint Shah Ji's desire for his beloved before he encountered her.   Mah Ji is painted in scenes of amusement with her companions in the garden of the palace, although she maintains an isolated and melancholy air, such as in the images of celebrations for Holi, in which she broods while a maid fans her, presumably to cool her passions.

Add_ms_16880_f138r_2000   Add_ms_16880_f147r_2000
Left: The heroine is aflame with passion and longing for her absent beloved (BL Add.16680, f. 138r)
Right: While Mah Ji’s companions prepare fireworks and celebrate, Mah Ji sits alone and is fanned by an attendant (BL Add.16680, f. 147r)
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After much solitary meditation, the hero of the story, Shah Ji, realised the spiritual error of mistaking the real beloved, the actual Mah Ji before him, for the reflection of Mah Ji in his heart, and returns to the palace to much rejoicing. The largest number of illustrations, twelve of the thirty four, in the manuscript represent the celebrations and rituals surrounding their union in marriage. As in other tales of the same genre, the union of the lover and beloved is a metaphor for the union of the soul with God after mistaking the image, the majaz or symbol (here the image of Mah Ji on the hero's chest) for the haqiqa, or truth.

Add_ms_16880_f166r_2000   Add_ms_16880_f232r_2000
Left: Realising that Mah Ji is the real beloved and not an illusion, Shah Ji returns, and then faints (BL Add.16680, f. 166r)
Right: The lovers are now united in marriage, and Mah Ji offers Shah Ji paan (BL Add.16680, f. 232r)
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While the images of the manuscript have been studied by art historians, much research remains to be done on the text and its languages. David Matthews has commented that, "One of the most striking features of the work is its language. The gist of the text can be understood with a little patience; the grammar, syntax and meaning of many verses defy interpretation," and he has also identified the use of many words borrowed from Marathi and Telegu into the Dakani Urdu verse of the manuscript (Matthews, 'Eighty Years', p. 96), suggesting that a team of specialist scholars would have to examine the text of the manuscript together in order to make full sense of it. While the images have been studied, published and displayed, Marika Sardar in her description of the manuscript for the Sultans of the Deccan India exhibition, has observed that some of the paintings, undertaken by three separate artists, seem to date from a later period and serve the purpose of expanding the illustrative narrative without adding content. She also comments that the manuscript seems to have been dis-bound and re-bound slightly out of order, so much work remains to be done on both the text and the study of the images. While the gist of the story and the dating of the images have been established, further study of the linguistic and art historical intricacies are still needed, which should be helped by the availability of the digitised manuscript on the British Library's website. Regardless of the mysteries surrounding certain aspects of the manuscript, the artists have given us the striking visual metaphor of the hero carrying an image of the heroine in his heart throughout the course of his spiritual quest, and also the flames of passion quite literally springing from the two main protagonists as they long to be together.


Bibliography and Further Reading
Along with other manuscripts from the courts of the Deccan Sultanates, the Pem Nem travelled to New York as a loan to Metropolitan Museum of Art for the 2015 exhibition, Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700, Opulence and Fantasy, for which Jeremiah Losty wrote a blog (British Library loans to Sultans of Deccan exhibition in New York).

See also:
Deborah Hutton, "The Pem Nem: A Sixteenth-Century Illustrated romance from Bijapur" in Sultans of the South: Arts of India's Deccan Courts, 1323-1687, edited by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2011): 44-63.
D.J. Matthews, "Eighty Years of Dakani Scholarship", The Annual of Urdu Studies, No. 8 (1993): 91-108.
David Matthews, "Pem Nem: A 16th Century Dakani Manuscript" in From Cairo to Kabul: Afghan and Islamic Studies presented to Ralph Pinder-Wilson, edited by Warwick Ball and Leonard Harrow (London: Melisende, 2002): 170-175.
Marika Sardar, "The Manuscript of the Pem Nem (The Laws of Love)" in Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700, Opulence and Fantasy, by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015): 97-98.
Mark Zebrowski, Deccan Painting (Sotheby Publications, University of California Press, 1983): 67-121.

 

Nur Sobers-Khan, Lead Curator for South Asia
 ccownwork

02 June 2017

Exploring Thai art: Reginald Le May

Reginald Le May was one of many European professionals who served in the Siamese Government during the first decades of the 20th century. He lived and worked for a quarter of a century in Siam (now Thailand), where he had the opportunity to travel intensively in the northern and north-eastern parts of the country. During this time, he accumulated collections of coins, stamps and Buddhist art. After his departure from Siam in 1933, he continued to study and research Thai Buddhist art, and with his publications and exhibitions Le May helped to publicise Thai Buddhist art in Europe.

Le May 1
Documentation about a small crystal Buddha statue that Le May collected in the North of Siam. British Library, MSS Eur C275/6

Born in 1885 at Wadhurst, Sussex, as the second son of the successful hop merchant Herbert Le May and Harriet Jane Le May (Newman), Reginald Le May received his education at Framlingham College, Suffolk, from 1898 to 1902. The following three years he spent in France and Switzerland studying French and German, and in 1907 he passed the Public Examination for the Far Eastern Consular Service under the Foreign Office. He served in the British Consular Service in Siam from 1908 to 1922, in 1909 winning a British government prize for his proficiency in Thai language. He served as Vice-Consul at Chiang Mai from 1915 to 1917, and afterwards as Vice-Consul at Bangkok until he was transferred to Saigon in 1920. In 1916 he married Dorothy Madeline Castle, with whom he had one daughter.

During his time in Chiang Mai, Le May travelled extensively, often by elephant, to rural areas and studied the culture of the native people. In his book An Asian Arcady: the land and peoples of Northern Siam (Cambridge, 1926) he reminisces: “When I was living in the north of Siam, it was my good fortune to travel extensively through most of the province of Bayap, and to see the lives of the Lao people at fairly close range. I was … quickly attracted by their many delightful qualities, and I used the opportunity to gather as much information as I could regarding their history, customs, and folk-lore” (preface, p. v). This book gave one of the most detailed descriptions of Northern Thai and Lao history and culture at that time, with numerous valuable photographs taken by the author during his trips.

Le May 2
Le May’s diplomatic travel document issued in Bangkok in 1915. British Library, MSS Eur C275/4

In 1922 Le May was offered the post of Economic Adviser to the Siamese Government, which he accepted happily. In this role, he was from 1926 to 1932 adviser to Prince Purachatra, Head of the State of Railways and Minister of Commerce. On behalf of the Siamese Government he toured Burma, northern India and British Malaya to study rural conditions, and an economic survey took him to north-eastern Siam. He retired from this post in 1933 and returned to the UK via Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, China and the US.

Le May 3
Photograph of Reginald Le May made around 1925 at the Talat Noi Photo Studio in Bangkok. British Library, MSS Eur C275/6    

Although Le May’s professional duties had little to do with Thai art and culture, he had a strong interest particularly in the history of Thai and Southeast Asian Buddhist art, but also in Thai coins and the ancient coinage of the Tai-speaking peoples, as well as the evolution of Thai stamps. For many years, he maintained a close relationship with the Siam Society, which published in 1932 his book on The coinage of Siam (reprinted in 1961). The book was the outcome of ten years of research and for many years it was the standard work on this topic. Other publications that appeared during his time in Siam were The standard catalogue of Thai stamps (Siam Philatelic Society, 1920) and Siamese tales – old and new (London, 1930).

Le May 4
Notes on a small bronze elephant figurine, dated 1603 A.D., collected by Le May in Northern Siam. MSS Eur C275/6

Le May was respected for his deep knowledge of Thai art and culture. He had lively written conversations with Prince Damrong, Prince Paribatra, Prince Chula Chakrabongse and other Thai intellectuals. In 1929-30 a fine scholarly dispute between Le May and one P.K. was published in the Bangkok Times on the theme of tradition and traditions. On 26 March, 1929, Le May wrote on the value of tradition: “Without tradition, there is no continuity of effort or purpose … It is this which enables the past to live in the present, and which gives us a strong sense of tradition and of our responsibility towards our association and country.” This was in response to criticism from the more progressively oriented P.K., published on 4 February of the same year, of Le May’s book: “Mr le May, in his book ‘An Asian Arcady’ deplores our lack of tradition. We differ from him. We see very little good in tradition. We are not in a position to be able to afford it. We think our adaptability is an asset and only wish we had more of it.”   

Le May 5
Prince Damrong admiring sculptures at the National Museum in Bangkok in 1928, photograph in Le May’s memories. British Library, MSS Eur C275/7

After his return to the UK, Le May pursued a doctorate at Cambridge University in 1934, and was awarded a PhD for his thesis on “Buddhist art in Siam”, which was published in 1938 and soon became a standard work on Thai and Southeast Asian Buddhist art. He began lecturing on Buddhist art at London University and at the Royal Asiatic and the Royal Central Asian Societies in London, at the EFEO and Musée Guimet in Paris, and the 1938 International Congress of Orientalists in Brussels.

In 1937, Le May’s collection of Thai art was displayed at an exhibition in Cambridge with the title Buddhistic sculpture from Siam. According to the exhibition leaflet, the scope of the display covered the Mon period (400-1000 A.D.), the Khmer period (1000-1250 A.D., the Sukhothai and U-Tong periods (1200-1300 A.D.), and the Ayutthaya period (1350-1600 A.D.) Being the first major exhibition of Thai Buddhist art, it drew so much interest that it was repeated in Oxford in 1938 and finally in London in the same year, under the auspices of the Royal India Society, where it was viewed by Queen Mary.

Le May 6
Announcement of Le May’s exhibition of Thai Buddhist art at Cambridge University in 1937. British Library, MSS Eur C275/3

Afterwards, some exhibits were acquired by the British Museum and the Toronto University Museum. Le May’s collection of Siamese stamps was presented to the National Museum and Library in Bangkok, and parts of his collection of ceramic wares were lent for many years to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and then donated to the British Museum. Some items from his collection of coins were also given to the British Museum.

Le May 7
Examples of 18th-century Thai coins with marks representing lotus blossoms, elephants, conch shells.  Reginald Le May, The coinage of Siam (Bangkok, 1932), plate IX. British Library, 07757.cc.21

Numerous scholarly articles by Le May appeared in the Burlington Magazine, the Journal of the Siam Society, the Indian Art Letters, and the Journal of the Royal India, Pakistan and Ceylon Society, mostly on Thai and Southeast Asian Buddhist art and ceramics. In 1954 Le May’s most comprehensive work, The culture of Southeast Asia, was published by Allen & Unwin, London. This book, which was the outcome of more than 25 years of research, is a study of the formative period between 500 A.D. and 1500 A.D. of Southeast Asian art and culture, covering both mainland and insular Southeast Asia.

From around 1950 on, Le May published a family history (1958), and compiled his memories of his years in Southeast Asia which resulted in eleven albums containing original photographs, letters, newspaper cuttings, invitation cards, etc., which are held at the British Library (MSS Eur C275/1-11). Reginald Le May passed away in 1972, aged 87. In their obituary, the Siam Society remembered that “Reginald Le May's affection for this country and the Thai people was hard to match. Indeed, to the last days of his life, he called Siam ‘the country of my adoption’."

Le May 8
Christmas and New Year wishes Le May received from Chiang Mai in 1950. This is a very rare example of 20th-century printing on palm leaves, with hand-coloured illustrations. British Library, MSS Eur C275/8

Further reading

Le May, Reginald, Records of the Le May family in England, 1630-1950. London, Tonbridge: Whitefriars Press, 1958
Obituary: Reginald Le May. Journal of the Siam Society vol. 60.2/1972, pp. 395-6

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

29 May 2017

Japanese puppet play revived

On 2nd and 3rd June 2017 a long-lost Japanese Bunraku puppet play will be staged at the British Library by performers led by the shamisen-player Echigo Kakutayū and puppeteer Nishihashi Hachirōbei. Entitled Echigo no Kuni Kashiwazaki Kōchi Hōin godenki越後國柏崎弘知法印御博記 or ‘The Life of the High Priest Kōchi from Kashiwazaki in Echigo Province’, the anonymous play is a highly fictionalised version of the life of the monk Kōchi Hōin (died 1363) whose mummified remains are preserved at the Saishōji Temple in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture.

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Front cover and first page of Kōchi Hōin godenki. The latter bears a slightly different form of the title - Kōchi Shōnin - and Kaempfer has rendered the title as Kootsi Foin (BL Or 75.g.23(1))
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To coincide with these performances, the full text of the play, consisting of 16 leaves and including 6 double-page black-and-white illustrations, has been digitised and made available on the British Library Digisited Manuscripts website (BL Or 75.g.23(1))

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Kōchi Hōin encounters a demon  (BL Or 75.g.23(1) fol 7r)
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The play belongs to a genre known as jōruri, a form of dramatic narrative performed by a chanter (tayū) to the accompaniment of the shamisen. More specifically it is described as kojōruri (‘old’ jōruri), the term applied to texts that predate the era of the renowned playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon. From the early 17th century the stories came to be used for the traditional Japanese puppet theatre, originally called Ningyō jōruri or ‘puppet jōruri’ and today more widely known as Bunraku.

Or 75 g 34 v2 f26v Seiro bijin shamisen
Geisha playing the shamisen. From Seirō bijin awase, 1770 (BL Or.75.g.34 v.2 fol. 26v)
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Or 75 g 34 v5  f71v Seiro bijin puppet
Geisha playing with a puppet. From Seirō bijin awase, 1770 (BL Or.75.g.34 v.5 fol. 71v)
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According to a note at the end of the text it was published in Edo (now Tokyo), in 1685 [Jōkyō 2] by Urokogataya based on an original version (shōhon) produced by the chanter Edo Magoshirō . Not long afterwards it was acquired by the German Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), author of the History of Japan, who served as physician to the Dutch East India Company at Deshima from 1690-92. During this time he collected books, manuscripts, maps, natural history samples and ethnological artefacts which were to serve as the source material for his later writings on Japan following his return to Germany. Clearly Kaempfer was interested in this play text as there are annotations in his handwriting identifying some of the main characters.

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Self portrait by Engelbert Kaempfer. Detail
(BL Sloane Ms 3060 fol. 502)
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After Kaempfer’s death in 1716, his collection was purchased by the physician, naturalist and collector Sir Hans Sloane and subsequently entered the British Museum on its foundation in 1753. So it was that the text of The Life of Kōchi Hōin left Japan and found its way to London.

A note on the inside of the front cover records that in December 1770 it was examined, along with other Chinese and Japanese books in the Museum, by a Chinese model-maker named Chetqua who mistakenly declared it to be ‘a Chinese story book’.

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Erroneous note by Chetqua inside front cover  (BL Or 75.g.23(1), front)
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Thereafter for almost two centuries it remained in the British Museum Library, largely unremarked, until its significance as the only surviving copy of the play was recognised by Professor Torigoe Bunzō of Waseda University in 1962.

In 1973, along with the rest of Kaempfer’s books, it was transferred to the newly established British Library.

Although the text of the play was published in Japan in 1966, it was not until 2009 that The Life of Kōchi Hōin was revived and performed again, primarily through the efforts of Donald Keene, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University. This performance in London will bring the story of Kōchi Hōin to life in the city where the play text has been preserved for almost 300 years.

Select bibliography
Yu-Ying Brown. ‘Origins and Charactersitics of the Japanese Collection in the British Library, British Library Journal, 24 (1), 1998, pp. 144-157.
Yu-Ying Brown, ‘Japanese Books and Manuscripts: Sloane’s Japanese Library and the Making of the History of Japan’ in Arthur MacGragor (ed.), Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist , Antiquary, Founding Father of the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1994), pp. 278-290.
Torigoe Bunzō and Charles Dunn (eds). Kojōrurishū : Daiei Hakubutsukan-bon . Tōkyō : Koten Bunko, 1966

Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collections
 ccownwork

24 May 2017

33 Burmese manuscripts now digitised

The Burmese manuscript collection in the British Library consists of approximately 1800 manuscripts. The majority are written on palm leaf, but there are also many paper folding books (parabaik), and texts written on diverse materials such as gold, silver, copper and ivory sheets in the shape of palm leaves. The collection is particularly strong in historical, legal and grammatical texts, and in illustrated material. In particular, there are many folding books with illustrations of the Life of the Buddha, Jataka stories, court scenes and other subjects.

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Royal entertainments: In the above scene, a musical troupe is entertaining the royals. To the left, the royal party is seated under a canopy watching a Burmese classical dance (Zat pwe), while to the right are dancers and musicians accompanied by an orchestra (Saing waing). Zat taw gyi or zat pwe is usually based on Jataka stories, which are the most popular literary sources throughout all periods of Burmese history. British Library, Or.16761, f.28r Noc

The manuscripts derive from two historic sources, the British Museum and the India Office Library, and were mostly brought from Burma by travellers, envoys, missionaries, administrators and researchers. From the British Museum came the John Murray collection, acquired in 1842, which includes several manuscripts from Arakan dating from the 1740s, and the Sir Arthur Phayre collection, acquired in 1886. The India Office Library collection of Burmese manuscripts began with the Royal Mandalay Collection acquired in 1886 after the Anglo-Burmese war, and a collection of official documents formed by Henry Burney which was probably presented to the Library by Burney himself. Catalogues of all the Burmese manuscripts are available in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and about 700 manuscripts in Burmese and and in Pali in Burmese script can be found in the online catalogue Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

Since 2013 the British Library has digitised some of the finest Burmese manuscripts in its collection, supported by the Henry D. Ginsburg Legacy. To date 33 manuscripts have been fully digitised, covering a wide range of genres and subjects.  All these manuscripts are now accessible through the Digitised Manuscripts website. A new webpage, Digital Access to Burmese Manuscripts, also lists all the Burmese manuscripts digitised so far, with hyperlinks to the images and to blog posts featuring the manuscripts. Future digitised manuscripts will be also be listed on this page. Shown in this post are a selection of our digitised Burmese manuscripts; clicking on the hyperlinked shelfmarks below the images will take you directly to the digitised versions.

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The royal melodrama Vijayakari zat: In the eighteenth century Burmese drama flourished at the royal court, and the earliest play, Maniket Pyazat, was written in 1733 by the court poet Padesaraja (1684-1752), based on his own poem Maniket Pyo. Burmese court drama really began to develop at the beginning of the reign of King Bodawpaya (1782-1819). Court dramatists, such as U Ponnya (1807-1866) and U Kyin U (1819-1853), produced dramatic works during the reign of Bagyidaw. Hlaing Hteik Khaung Tin, the Crown Princess (1833-1875) in the reign of King Mindon, wrote court dramas such as Vijayakari and Indavamsa, but she earned particular fame for her romantic dramas. In the scene shown above, there is a tree in a magical forest where lovely maidens grow and wait to be plucked. This drama is about Prince Vijayakari, Sakanitum (a princess born from a flower bud), and Adideva of the Ogre Kingdom. These court dramatists wrote delightful romances which are marvels of literary art. Only a few of their works survive to the present day but these are still widely read and studied. British Library, Or.3676, f.13r Noc

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Regatta festival: There are many Burmese festivals throughout the year. Tawthalin (September) is the sixth month in the Burmese calendar and the third month of the rainy season in Burma. The rain becomes less frequent, there is sunshine with clear skies, no wind, and the surfaces of the rivers are smooth without waves. The season is just right for holding regatta festivals, which have traditionally been held in this month since the times of ancient Burmese kings, and the regatta festival remains one of the twelve monthly festivals in the Burmese calendar. Regattas were not only occasions for pageantry but also opportunities for demonstrating the naval prowess of the armed forces. In the olden days, the royal family sent their own boats to participate in the race, and high officials were placed in charge of preparations for boat races held along the shores of rivers throughout the country. British Library, Or.15021, f.16r Noc

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Scenes from the Ramayana: Ravana, in disguise as a hermit, begs Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refuses, Ravana summons his magic chariot and sweeps Sita up and away, into the sky and over the forests (top). When Rama and Lakshmana finally find their way home Sita is gone (bottom). British Library, Or. 14178, f. 10 Noc

Quick link to: Digital access to Burmese manuscripts

San San May, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

19 May 2017

The Jaipur Literary Festival comes to the British Library

If anyone is wondering why tents are going up all over the Piazza, it’s all in preparation for the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival which returns to London this weekend at the British Library presenting a sumptuous showcase of South Asia’s literary heritage, oral and performing arts with 31 scheduled events.

Download a full programme

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In January earlier this year the Library exhibited a facsimile of one of the four original Magna Carta documents from 1215, now held at the British Library in London, at the Diggi Palace in Jaipur (Magna Carta at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival). Hosting the London Festival is a wonderful way of participating in the South Asia Year of Culture besides having an opportunity to showcase our own rich collections from South Asia. These include paintings, miniatures, drawings, over 80,000 manuscripts covering history and poetry to medicine and religion, the writings and papers of diplomats and travellers and administrators, outstanding photography, some 600,000 printed books and periodicals, countless recordings and much more besides.

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Leaves from the Dara Shikoh Album
Right: Dara Shikoh with a tutor, attributed to Chitarman, c. 1630 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.33v)
Left: Lady with a narcissus, perhaps Mumtaz Mahal, attributed to Bishndas, 1631-33 (British Library Add.Or.3129, f.34r)
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An opportunity to find out about our collections takes place at 12.45 in the Piazza in Ten South Asian Treasures of the British Library.  Our curators will highlight

  • Zoroastrian Treasures in the British Library
  • Abu'l-Fazl's  Akbarnamah
  • Two centuries of Indian Print
  • The Lucknow Album
  • The Dara Shikoh Album
  • The Gentil Atlas
  • India Office Records
  • The Dakani manuscript Pem Nem

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The ghats at Haridwar. Watercolour by Sitaram, 1814-15 (British Library, Add.Or.4783)
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Other sessions with BL Asian and African curators are:

Illustrious Journeys: The Forgotten Art of Sitaram
JP Losty introduced by Malini Roy
Sita Ram was the artist of ten magnificent albums of drawings of views on the Ganges and Yamuna from Bengal to Delhi and beyond. Two volumes were sold in London in 1974 and subsequently dispersed but it was not until the British Library acquired the remaining eight volumes in 1995 that Sita Ram's true status and patronage were revealed. J.P. Losty takes us on an imaginative journey following the Governor-General Lord Hastings' travels of 1814-15 with Sita Ram’s meticulous, detailed and inspired watercolours.

The Rise and Fall of Mughal Art
JP Losty, Katherine Butler Schofield, Susan Stronge and Malini Roy in conversation with William Dalrymple (Presented by Aga Khan Foundation)
No Indian dynasty made more of their love for art, and especially painting, than the Mughals. Five authorities on Mughal painting tell the remarkable story of how a Muslim dynasty came to patronise some of the greatest figurative paintings in world history, from the beginnings of the atelier during the reign of Akbar through to its heyday during the reign of Shah Jahan and its decline under Aurangzeb.

Knowledge Networks from the Medieval to the Contemporary World
Arthur Dudney, Gagan Sood, James Caron, Layli Uddin and Paniz Musawi Natanzi in conversation with Nur Sobers-Khan
The circulation of ideas in the early modern world demonstrates the complexity of knowledge flows and networks, of translation, retranslation, reinterpretation and innovation. The movements of information and thought from East to West and back provide fascinating insights into the nature of scholarship and the movement of ideas.

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Prince Gauhar and Khiradmand rescued by the simurgh. By Govardhan II, 1734-9 (British Library, Johnson Album 38, f.51r)  noc

In addition to the literary events there will be musical performances in the piazza and the entrance hall:

  • Morning Music (Saturday): Bhakti: Invoking the Muse  with Arundhathi Subramaniam & Vidya Shah
  • Evening Music (Saturday): Kabir Cafe with Neeraj Arya
  • Morning Music (Sunday) with Amrit Kaur Lohia

If you can make it,  don't forget to visit the BL Treasures Gallery which will be open exhibiting the Dara Shikoh album, Mughal manscripts and Hindu and Buddhist treasures.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
Twitter Links: @BLAsia_Africa#ZEEJLFatBL

17 May 2017

Elephants, kingship and warfare in Southeast Asia

Elephants have played an important part in many Asian civilisations since ancient times, for once they could be brought under control, their gigantic physical appearance and wild temperament were regarded as great assets. In China, war elephants appeared from at least as early as the Shang Dynasty (1723-1123 BC) (Kistler 2006: 8). They were respected both for their awe-inspiring size and for their difficult behaviour, which in turn helped to secure the position at the top of those kings who succeeded in controlling the beasts (Trautmann 2015: 68-69). In India, from as early as 1000 BC in the later Vedic period, elephants were domesticated and became a very valuable resource for kings and rulers in the northern states, especially for use in battle, and information on domesticating elephants was recorded in Gajasastra or elephant knowledge manuals. In Hinduism the pachyderms are regarded as sacred animals since the god Indra chose a celestial elephant named Airavana as his animal mount, or vahana (Trautmann 2015: 100).

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Airavana, the god Indra’s elephant, depicted in a Thai manuscript. British Library, Or.  13652, f. 4v Noc

The Indian epic Ramayana also portrays elephants as an important part of kingship. It mentions the relationship between kings and elephants, and the duty of the royals to attend to the needs of the elephants (Trautmann 2015: 50-51). Ayodhaya, the royal city of Rama, was full of horses and elephants, and according to early Buddhist texts, King Bimbisara of Magadha (558-491 BC) possessed a well-trained elephant corps (Kistler 2006: 21) .

The idea of the royal use of elephants, war elephants and elephant training techniques gradually spread from India to the kingdoms of Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, as early as AD 40, the two Trưng sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, led a victorious but short-lived rebellion against the Chinese Han ruler before they were suppressed in AD 42. The two Trưng sisters, who were killed in the war, have been depicted in Vietnamese history as warriors riding on elephants to fight against the Chinese Han.  Since then they have become national heroines and a symbol of resistance against foreign rule and domination.

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The Trưng Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng) depicted on the front cover of Làng Văn, no. 19, March, 1986. British Library, 16641.e.13

Elephants played an essential role in traditional warfare in Southeast Asia. Not only were they the main war machines but they could also instigate war, especially if they were “white elephants”. In many traditional kingdoms in Southeast Asia, “white elephants” received royal treatment and carried the king. In reality “white elephants” are simply albino elephants, but they are extremely rare. Some white elephants which simply had pale colorations or certain spots and other characteristics were deemed to be “auspicious” and beautiful, and were believed to be especially blessed by the gods. This belief may also be related to the Hindu myth which describes Airavana, Indra’s mount, as a white elephant. Rulers sometimes competed for ownership of such white elephants, and these ownership contests could be used as pretexts for declaring war (Kistler 2006: 178-9).

Just as the Vietnamese honour the Trưng sisters, so the Thais regard highly Queen Suriyothai and her daughter, Princess Boromdilok, for their bravery and sacrifice. According to Thai chronicles, Queen Suriyothai gave up her life to protect her husband King Maha Chakkraphat, who was engaged in an elephant fight with the Burmese Viceroy of Prome during the rise of the Tongoo dynasty of Burma in 1548. She dressed as a male soldier on a war elephant and decided to block the Viceroy of Prome from charging her husband, but was killed by a single blow from the Viceroy’s spear, together with her daughter. Between 1563 and 1564 the Burmese kingdom of the Toungoo Dynasty and the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya were engaged in another war, this time over white elephants. King Bayinnaung of the Toungoo demanded that King Maha Chakkraphat of Ayutthaya send two of his white elephants to Burma as tribute, but Maha Chakkraphat refused, and hence war broke out. Ayutthaya could not withstand the power of the Burmese army, and eventually a peace deal was agreed in which one of the Siamese king’s princes was taken hostage to Burma, and Ayutthaya also had to give four white elephants to the Burmese king. In addition, Siam had to send thirty elephants and a substantial amount of silver to Burma annually. Ayutthaya was also reduced in status to a vassal state to the Burmese kingdom.

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Elephant catching in Burma. British Library, Or. 16761, f.10r Noc

According to Thai historical sources, Siamese pride was only restored by King Naresuan, the grandson of King Maha Chakkraphat, when he won an elephant duel between himself and Mingyi Swa, Bayinnaung’s grandson, in 1593. In foreign source material the actual elephant duel was not mentioned but there was definitely an elephant battle between Naresuan and the Burmese troops. Similar conflicts over white elephants took place in other traditional Southeast Asian kingdoms. For example, around the 1470s, Emperor Lê Thánh Tông of the Đại Việt kingdom waged a war against the Lan Xang kingdom (literarily translated as 'kingdom of a million elephants', located in modern Laos) after his request for a gift of a hair of the white elephant of King Chakkaphat of Lan Xang was rejected.

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King Naresuan on his elephant battles with the Burmese.  King Naresuan the Great (Bangkok : Animate, 1994). British Library, YP.2007.a.2584,  p.[170]

Elephants have no place in modern world warfare; nevertheless Southeast Asians still have a strong sense of their power and role in society. In Thailand an annual elephant round up is organised in Surin province in north-eastern Thailand. This festival was an important royal event during the Ayutthaya period, when wild elephants were hunted, tamed and trained to be used as working or war animals. In Thanh Hóa province in northern Vietnam, an elephant battle festival or Trò Chiềng has been revived recently. This festival commemorates and honours General Trịnh Quốc Bảo, who adopted war tactics in his fight against the enemy in the 11th century.  He had elephants made out of bamboo, glued fireworks to them, and then burnt them in the battle against the enemy’s elephant troops. This spectacular and original strategy may well have contributed to his victory.

Further reading:
John M. Kistler. War elephants. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2006.
Thomas R. Trautmann. Elephants and kings: an environmental history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
‘Tro Chieng: the Most Anticipated Festival in Thanh Hoa’, Vietnam Pictorial, No. 699, March, 2017, pp. 30-33 (British Library shelf mark : SU216 (2) )

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork