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Scenes from the Ramayana

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San San May, British Library

Three Burmese parabaik (folding book) manuscripts in the British Library have been digitised and are now accessible on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts viewer, including a Burmese copy of the Ramayana (Or.14178). This parabaik from around 1870 A.D. has 16 pages with painted scenes of the Ramayana story with brief captions in Burmese. The paper covers are painted in red, yellow and green with floral borders and prancing lions. One cover has an inscription in black ink in Burmese, giving the title, Rama Zat, and a brief identification of the contents, as follows: Rama strings the bow; Dusakhaya demon in battle; offerings of alms; abduction in the chariot; building of the stone causeway; and arrival in Thiho (Ceylon/Sri Lanka).

The ten-headed demon king of Thiho (Ceylon/Sri Lanka), Dathagiri (Ravana) sends Gambi in the form of a shwethamin (golden deer) to Thida (Sita). Being persuaded by Sita to catch the golden deer for her, Rama left Sita under the protection of his brother, Letkhana (Lakshmana), and went after the golden deer. Or.14178, f.8

The ten-headed demon king of Thiho (Ceylon/Sri Lanka), Dathagiri (Ravana) sends Gambi in the form of a shwethamin (golden deer) to Thida (Sita). Being persuaded by Sita to catch the golden deer for her, Rama left Sita under the protection of his brother, Letkhana (Lakshmana), and went after the golden deer. Or.14178, f.8

The oral tradition of the Burmese Ramayana story can be traced as far back as the reign of King Anawrahta (A.D.1044-77), the founder of the first Burmese empire. It was transmitted orally from generation to generation before being written down in prose and verse, and as a drama. The first known written Burmese version of the Ramayana is Rama Thagyin (Songs from the Ramayana), compiled by U Aung Phyo in 1775 (a typescript copy from a palm leaf manuscript made in 1980 is held in the British Library as MYAN.A.2579/1-2). A three-volume copy of the Rama story called Rama vatthu was written on palm leaf in 1877 (MAN/BUR315).

Early printed versions in the British Library include Pontaw Rama (Part 1) by Saya Ku, published in 1880 (14302.e.3/5); Rama thonmyo zat taw gyi vatthu, 1904 (BUR.B.604); Pontaw Rama and Lakkhana (Part 1) by U Maung Gyi, published in 1904 (14302.e.11); Rama ruidaya zat taw gyi by U Maung Gyi, published in 1907 (BUR.D.74/3); Rama yakan by U Toe, published in two volumes in 1933 (14302.b.52/1); and Rama thon myo by U Pho Sein, 1936 (14302.aa.34; BUR.B.647/1).

When Sita and Lakshmana heard Rama’s voice calling them in distress, Lakshmana made a three-fold magic circle around their shelter to ward off evil, and warned Sita not to venture out of the circle. As soon as Lakshmana went to look for Rama, Ravana changed himself into an old hermit and came to Sita and begged for alms of fruits. She forgot her brother-in-law’s warning and came out of the magic circle and gave him food and, water as she thought he was a real hermit. . Or.14178, f.9

When Sita and Lakshmana heard Rama’s voice calling them in distress, Lakshmana made a three-fold magic circle around their shelter to ward off evil, and warned Sita not to venture out of the circle. As soon as Lakshmana went to look for Rama, Ravana changed himself into an old hermit and came to Sita and begged for alms of fruits. She forgot her brother-in-law’s warning and came out of the magic circle and gave him food and, water as she thought he was a real hermit.  Or.14178, f.9

Ravana returned into his own form of a horrible giant with ten fearful heads and twenty great arms and begged Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refused, Ravana summoned his magic chariot and swept Sita up and away into the sky, over the forest. When Rama and Lakshmana finally found their way home Sita was gone. Or.14178, f.10

Ravana returned into his own form of a horrible giant with ten fearful heads and twenty great arms and begged Sita to come with him to his kingdom. When she refused, Ravana summoned his magic chariot and swept Sita up and away into the sky, over the forest. When Rama and Lakshmana finally found their way home Sita was gone. Or.14178, f.10

Dramatic performances of the Ramayana emerged in the Konbaung Period (1752-1885). The king’s minister Myawady Mingyi U Sa converted the Ramayana Jataka into a typical Burmese classical drama and he also composed theme music and songs for its performance. Ever since then, Ramayana performances have been very popular in Burmese culture, and Yama zat pwe (Rama dramatic performances) and marionette stage shows are often held. Scenes from the Ramayana can also be found as motifs or design elements in Burmese lacquerware and wood carvings.

A digital copy of the manuscript is available online .

Truyện Kiều – The Tale of Kiều at the British Library

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Sud Chonchirdsin, British Library

Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kiều), written by Nguyễn Du (1766-1820) is regarded as the most significant poem in Vietnamese literature. It was composed in lục-bát (6/8) stanzas and its original title in Vietnamese is Ðoạn Trường Tân Thanh (A New Cry From a Broken Heart). However, it is better known as Truyện Kiều or Kim Văn Kiều.

The story is based on a seventeenth century Ming Chinese novel which Nguyễn Du discovered while he was on an ambassadorial mission to China in 1813. The plot portrays the chaotic political and social circumstances of Vietnam in the eighteenth century arising from political infighting. The theme of the story is filial piety, one of the main tenets of Confucianism. It recounts the life and trials of a beautiful and talented young woman who sacrificed her happiness to save her disgraced family. She had to go through many sufferings, such as being lured into prostitution, being wed to a man who was already married, and being thrown out of a Buddhist sanctuary before she was finally reunited with her first love. However, this reunion did not bring earthly joy for Kiều, who chose to devote her life to serving her family as filial piety demanded.

Or.14844, folio 12

Or.14844, folio 12

Literature critics have argued that the theme of the story is an allegory of Nguyễn Du’s guilt and conflict of interest in agreeing to work for the new regime (the Nguyễn dynasty, 1802-1945) which had been indirectly involved in the overthrow of his former master. This behaviour was unacceptable in traditional Confucian Vietnamese society as it was tantamount to betraying filial piety. Hence the theme of the story was a poignant reminder for Nguyễn Du, who was born into a high profile mandarin family, and whose father served as a high ranking minister under the Le dynasty.

Woven silk cover of the book

Woven silk cover of the book

The copy of the Truyện Kiều manuscript held at the British Library (reference number Or.14844) was completed around 1894. It is written in Chữ Nôm (Sino-Vietnamese characters). Each page is beautifully illustrated with scenes from the story. It is bound in a royal yellow silk cover with dragon patterns. Nguyễn Quang Tuấn, an independent Vietnamese scholar who inspected the manuscript, is of the opinion that this manuscript bears some royal significance because the dragon on the cover has five claws, which was normally reserved for imperial use only. Another significant feature of this manuscript is that it bears annotations by Paul Pelliot (1898-1945), the renowned French Sinologist, who bought the manuscript in 1929.

A digital copy of the book is available online .

Everyday life in Java in the late 18th century: Serat Damar Wulan

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Annabel Teh Gallop, British Library

The newly-digitised Serat Damar Wulan (MSS.Jav.89) is one of the loveliest Indonesian manuscripts in the British Library, with a treasury of illustrations depicting Javanese society in the late 18th century. The pictures are rich in humour and the artist had a marvellous eye for facial expressions and bodily postures (a woman sleeping with her arm across her eyes, a sandal just balanced on a foot). Everyday ‘things’ are depicted in fascinating detail, from bird cages to garden pots and textiles, with wonderful scenes of music and dance of enormous interest to performers today, as Matthew Cohen points out in one of his latest posts on his blog Indonesian performances.

A contemporary English note which accompanied the donation of the manuscript in 1815 states ‘This Book is said to be 2 hundred years old’ (image numbered ‘front-i’), but according to Dr Russell Jones, the watermarks of the much-thumbed and soiled pages of Dutch paper, ‘J HONIG’ and ‘J H & Z’, have so far only been found in Indonesian manuscripts dated ca.1800 to 1855, and so a late 18th-century dating is perhaps most likely for this manuscript.

A messenger on horseback bringing news Daha has been attacked by Balambangan (MSS.Jav.89, f.33v, detail).

A messenger on horseback bringing news Daha has been attacked by Balambangan (MSS.Jav.89, f.33v, detail).

Early scholars of Javanese texts were notoriously oblivious to the artistic aspects of manuscripts, but the Serat Damar Wulan proved irresistible. In 1953, Lina Maria Coster-Wijsman (grandmother of Javanese art historian Marijke Klokke) published a valuable study, ‘Illustrations in a Javanese manuscript’, identifying all the illustrations in the manuscript. For a concordance of her illustration numbers with the current folio numbers of the British Library manuscript (Damar MSS.Jav.89) click here.

Pages from the Serat Damar Wulan were also reproduced in colour in the British Library photographic exhibition Golden Letters, which travelled all over Indonesia in 1991, and in the book Early views of Indonesia, which was published in 1995 as a gift from the British government to mark the 50th anniversary of Indonesian independence. One picture showed Damar Wulan being prepared for his marriage by two formidable female attendants, looking exactly like the bossy professional wedding planners still active today. Imagine my surprise when, in 2000, I noticed on the wall of the Jakarta home of my friend Jennifer Lindsay a glass painting of exactly this scene, which she had bought in the market in Solo the previous year. (Knowing how much I loved the picture, in 2003 Jenny generously gave it to me, and it will eventually join the collections of the British Library). It was wonderful to see how, after a period of two centuries, the pictures in the Serat Damar Wulan were feeding back into the artistic life of Java. With the full manuscript now online, hopefully the digitised images will inspire many more such artistic re-creations.

Damar Wulan being prepared for his wedding, 18th c. (MSS.Jav.89, f.134v, detail), published in Early views of Indonesia (1995).

Damar Wulan being prepared for his wedding, 18th c. (MSS.Jav.89, f.134v, detail), published in Early views of Indonesia (1995).

A glass painting of the same scene, produced in central Java, ca.1998.

A glass painting of the same scene, produced in central Java, ca.1998.

References

L.M. Coster-Wijsman, ‘Illustrations in a Javanese manuscript’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1953, 109 (2): 153-163
‘Editorial note‘, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1953, 109 (3): 276.
Annabel Teh Gallop, Early views of Indonesia: drawings from the British Library. (London: British Library, 1995), p.58.

An illuminated Malay Qur’an

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Annabel Teh Gallop, British Library

An exquisite illuminated Qur’an (Or.15227), dating from the 19th century and originating from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, is the first Qur’an manuscript in the British Library to be digitised in its entirety. The manuscript was displayed in the British Library’s Sacred exhibition in 2007, and also featured in the accompanying book by Colin Baker on Qur’an manuscripts.

Beginning of Surat Yasin.  Or.15227, ff.222v-223r

Beginning of Surat Yasin. Or.15227, ff.222v-223r

On the basis of various codicological features the manuscript can be attributed to the cultural zone encompassing Kelantan, on the north-east coast of Malaysia, and Patani, in southern Thailand. In many ways the Qur’an is typical of manuscript production in Patani, with black endpapers of Thai manufacture, a cloth cover with elaborate stitched headbands, and illuminated frames with typical Patani features such as the ‘interlocking wave’ motif. And yet the exactitude of the drawing and colouring, and the repetition of ornamental details, is more typical of Qur’ans from the court of Terengganu, the richest centre for Islamic manuscript illumination in Southeast Asia. The hybrid character of this manuscript is emphasized by some other unusual features, including the presence of double decorated frames in the middle of the Book marking the start of Surat al-Kahf and Surat Yasin, instead of just at the beginning of Surat al-Isra’, as is usual in East Coast Qur’ans. Also of great interest are two unfinished monochrome frames in black ink (ff.303v-304r, 306v-307r); the zoom capabilities of the digitised manuscripts viewer can be used to follow how the artist worked.

Detail of an illuminated heading for Surat al-Mujadilah, with a marginal ornament marking the start of the 28th juz’, and a tiny red marginal inscription maqra’, indicating a portion selected for recitation.  Or.15227, f.273v (detail)

Detail of an illuminated heading for Surat al-Mujadilah, with a marginal ornament marking the start of the 28th juz’, and a tiny red marginal inscription maqra’, indicating a portion selected for recitation. Or.15227, f.273v (detail)

To see the fully digitised manuscript click here

[Please note that because the British Library digitised manuscripts viewer was developed for Greek manuscripts, the ‘open book’ viewing option is not suitable for right-to-left scripts such as Arabic, and therefore the ‘single’ view option should be used.]

The British Library Malay Qur’an joins other fully digitised Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts on the internet, including a superbly illuminated Acehnese Qur’an, Cod.Or.2064 in Leiden University Library, and four Javanese Qur’an manuscripts (Arabe 458, 582, 583 and 584) in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris.

Thus for the first time, it is possible to study online Qur’an manuscripts from three distinctive regional traditions in Southeast Asia.

References
Annabel Teh Gallop, ‘The spirit of Langkasuka? illuminated manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula’, Indonesia and the Malay World, July 2005, 33 (96): 113-182, pp.146, 161.
Colin F. Baker, Qur’an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design (London: The British Library, 2007), pp.92-93.

Javanese art in the early 19th century: Serat Selarasa

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An occasional series of blog posts on digitised manuscripts in the British Library

Annabel Teh Gallop, British Library

The Serat Selarasa is the most beautiful Javanese manuscript in the British Library, and perhaps the earliest finely-illustrated Javanese manuscript known. The manuscript is dated 1804, and according to a note in the text was once owned by the wife of a Dutch East India Company official in Surabaya. This was probably F.J.Rothenbühler, from whom Col. Colin Mackenzie received this manuscript in 1812. Mackenzie evidently had a special interest in this manuscript, for amongst his private papers is a complete English translation of the Serat Selarasa (Mackenzie 1822, vol.28, pp.1-152).

‘The History of Shallah-rausah’, English translation of Serat Selarasa. Mackenzie 1822, vol.28, p.1

‘The History of Shallah-rausah’, English translation of Serat Selarasa. Mackenzie 1822, vol.28, p.1

Although the manuscript was illustrated by the same artist throughout, there is a different approach in the first part of the manuscript (up to f.19v), where the pictures are larger and the characters range vertically across the page, some with ethereal pastel background settings, as seen below. Thereafter, the pictures are structured more conventionally along the bottom of the page, essentially on a single horizontal plane.

Prince Selarasa kneels before a holy man, Kiai Nur Sayid, who has stayed in one place for so long, neither eating nor drinking but smelling flowers and praying to God, that a vine has grown up around his body.  The narrative power of the image is reinforced by enclosing the whole scene within a vine.  MSS.Jav.28, f.8r

Prince Selarasa kneels before a holy man, Kiai Nur Sayid, who has stayed in one place for so long, neither eating nor drinking but smelling flowers and praying to God, that a vine has grown up around his body. The narrative power of the image is reinforced by enclosing the whole scene within a vine. MSS.Jav.28, f.8r

Mackenzie also received another illustrated Javanese manuscript from Rothenbühler, a copy of the Serat Panji Jayakusuma (MSS.Jav.68), and a translation of this text, entitled ‘History of a Raja of Kling’, is found in the same volume of Mackenzie’s papers (Mackenzie 1822, vol.28, pp.153-320). This manuscript is almost but not quite as fine as the Serat Selarasa, with considerable use of silver (now tarnished) as well as gold, and further investigation is needed to determine the artistic relationship between the two manuscripts.

Serat Panji Jayakusuma.  MSS.Jav.68, f.10v

Serat Panji Jayakusuma. MSS.Jav.68, f.10v

http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=MSS_Jav_28

References

Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps, Golden letters: writing traditions of Indonesia / Surat emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia (London: British Library; Jakarta: Lontar, 1991), pp.88-89.

The art of the book in Southeast Asia: new digitised manuscripts from the British Library

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Henry D. Ginsburg was for many years curator for Thai collections at the British Library. Following his untimely death in 2007, the Trustees of his Estate endowed the post of ‘Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian’ at the British Library, and also presented a further small legacy dedicated to enhancing access to the Southeast Asian collections. In line with Henry’s profound interest in manuscript art, seven of the most important illustrated and illuminated Southeast Asian manuscripts were selected for full digitisation, and these can now be seen on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts viewer:

Vietnam
Or.14844, Truyện Kiều, The tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du, in Sino-Vietnamese. Some pages have annotations by Paul Pelliot, a French Sinologist (1898-1945).
http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Or_14844

Burma
Or.13681, ‘Depictions of Royal donations’, containing scenes of seven merit-making ceremonies performed in the years B.E. 1215-1219 (1853-1857 A.D.). The donations were probably made by Queen Tharasein of Mindon (r.1853-1878), whose name appears on a paper label stuck on the back cover of the manuscript.
http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Or_13681
Or.16761, ‘Depictions of royal entertainments’, illustrated folding book with gilded covers, 19th century.
http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=2&ref=Or_16761
Or.14178, Ramayana, illustrated folding book (parabaik) with brief captions in Burmese, 19th century.
http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=1&ref=Or_14178

Indonesia
MSS.Jav.28, Serat Selarasa, finely illustrated Javanese manuscript, 1804.
http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=MSS_Jav_28
MSS.Jav.89, Serat Damar Wulan, fully illustrated Javanese manuscript, 18th century, possibly from Cirebon.
http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=MSS_Jav_89

The hazards of crossing a river: scene from Serat Damar Wulan, Javanese MS, 18th c.  MSS Jav 89, f.41v (det.)

The hazards of crossing a river: scene from Serat Damar Wulan, Javanese MS, 18th c. MSS Jav 89, f.41v (det.)

Malaysia/Thailand
Or.15227, Qur’an, finely illuminated Arabic manuscript from Kelantan or Patani, 18th-19th century.

http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?index=0&ref=Or_15227

These manuscripts join a large number of illustrated Thai manuscripts and royal letters which have been digitised with the generous support of the Royal Thai Government in honour of the 80th Birthday Anniversary of H.M. the King of Thailand. These manuscripts can also be accessed on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts viewer: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Default.aspx
[NB Please note that the BL Digitised Manuscripts viewer was originally developed for Greek manuscripts, which read from left to right. For books that are read from right to left – such as those written in Vietnamese and Arabic – the ‘open book’ display option is not suitable, and the ‘single’ view option should be selected.]

Over the next few weeks we will be writing about some of these newly digitised manuscripts in more detail.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead curator, Southeast Asian studies
Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian
San San May, Curator for Burmese
Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese

The Balinese Digital Library Collection

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The Balinese lontar manuscripts range from ordinary texts to Bali’s most sacred writings. They include texts on religion, holy formulae, rituals, family genealogies, law codes, treaties on medicine (usadha), arts and architecture, calendars, prose, poems and even magic. Many lontar manuscripts contain information on important issues such as medicines and village regulations that are used as daily guidance.

The Internet Archive is currently scanning and uploading lontars in Bali, as well as videos depicting Balinese ceremonies and traditions. Working with Professor Ron Jenkins and Balinese scholars Nyoman Catra and Dewa Made Dharmawan, this project aims at making lontars accessible, readable and understandable to a wider audience and to scholars and students in Indonesia and all over the world. To access the collection, go to
http://archive.org/details/Bali

Early Malay Publications in SOAS Library’s Special Collections

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SOAS Library has a treasure of early Malay publications in Arabic script (known as Jawi script), most of them dated 19th century and some early 20th century. These were originally on the open shelves in the main library at classmark IBA although some might have been classified at IBC.

In 1993 Ian Proudfoot published Early Malay printed books: a provisional account of materials published in the Singapore-Malaysia area up to 1920, noting holdings in major public collections. A copy of this work is held in the South East Asia reference section at Ref. HG015/687711. It lists SOAS Library holdings, giving the IBA classmark for each publication. When Proudfoot’s work was published, it alerted people to some of our rare holdings. A decision was then made to withdraw this material from the open shelves and transfer the material to the rare book collection (although a few of them can still be found on the open shelves). Those items transferred have ‘EA’, ‘EB’, ‘EC’ or ‘ER’ classmarks. For more information, contact jk53@soas.ac.uk or docenquiry@soas.ac.uk

Jotika Khur-Yearn

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