In this week's episode of Treasures of the British Library (aired on Sky Arts, on Tuesdays), Julia Donaldson, writer and author of The Gruffalo, spoke to Dr Muhammad Isa Waley about one of The British Library's most engaging Persian manuscripts, a copy of the Anvār-i Suhaylī or Lights of Canopus – the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina – which was copied for the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-27).
The Anvār-i Suhaylī is a 15th century version of a story of two jackals, Kalilah and Dimnah, by the Timurid author Ḥusayn Vāʻiz̤ Kāshifi. It is based on a collection of interrelated fables, mostly about animals, set within a frame story, which became best known in the West as the Fables of Bidpai and was first published in English in 1570 as The Morall Philosophie of Doni.
The fables owe their origin to India, where they are best known in Sanskrit as the Panchatantra, but it was largely through the Arabic translation by Ibn al-Muqaffāʻ (died c. 757) that they became so popular in Persian. The story describes how the Sasanian king of Iran, Anushirvan (Khusraw I, r. 531-579), heard of a book treasured by the kings of India which had been compiled from the speech of animals, birds, reptiles and wild beasts.
Anushirvan sent his physician Burzuyah on a mission to India to discover the book and Burzuyah returned with a copy which he translated into Middle Persian. The original translation is lost but the stories were re-translated into Arabic and Syriac, and then from Arabic into Persian and other languages.
At the end of the 15th century the Timurid Sultan Husayn Mirza Bayqara (r.1469-1506) asked Ḥusayn Vāʻiz̤ Kāshifī to produce another, simplified, version in Persian and it was this which subsequently became the most popular, especially with the Mughal Emperors in India who commissioned several luxurious copies.
The manuscript featured in Julia Donaldson’s programme was created for the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and completed in AH 1019 (1610/11) though its 36 miniatures were probably painted earlier while Jahangir, as Prince Salim, held court in Allahabad. The paintings are mostly ascribed to well-known Mughal artists and two are personally dedicated to Prince Salim and dated AH 1013 (1604/5).
As in the story of the Gruffalo, a mouse hero features several times in the Anvār-i Suhaylī (see our blog The Cat and the Rat: a popular Persian fable). To mark the programme, we have selected a few of the other stories to illustrate the charm of this ever popular work. This manuscript has now been digitised and you can read the whole work here.
This article first appeared on British Library's Asian and African Studies blog.