Cotsen’s Covert Collections: An 18th-century Illuminated Manuscript from Rajasthan


Full page spread, Cotsen 46721

Full page spread (second text), Cotsen 46721

For this edition of “Cotsen’s Covert Collections” I’d like to post about another item I know very little about: an 18th-century manuscript from Rajasthan, India. But the manuscript is such an unusual item that I thought it was definitely worth advertising!

Here’s what we do know: The manuscript was written in the Braj Bhasa language in Devanagari script probably around 1780 in the Mewar region of the Indian state of Rajasthan. It contains 3 distinct works: the text Avatara-carinthr, which describes the different reincarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu; the text Shri Ramcandra-carinthr manas, which describes the life of Rama and Sita (from the Ramayana epic); and the tenth book of Bhagavata Purana, which is the holiest book for worshipers of the Hindu god Vishnu. Though the middle text appears to be the bulk of the manuscript, it’s hard to designate the sections (for me anyway) because the manuscript is unpaginated.

Physically, the manuscript is really beautiful and honestly kind of daunting. The folio-sized manuscript, which measures about 16 inches high, is massive! It’s over 500 pages long and contains around 1600 illuminated and hand-painted miniatures. When talking about Western medieval manuscripts, “illuminated” means that gold (or silver) foil is used in the decoration of the artwork; and  “miniatures” are not necessarily minute in size, but is a specialized meaning of the term to denote those paintings within a manuscript.


A page from the first text, the Avatara-carinthir.


A spread from the second text, Shri Ramacandra-carinthir.


Miniatures from the last text, the Bhavata Purana, Book 10.

Another fascinating feature of this manuscript is the folded binding–a one-of-a-kind example in our collection.

Bottom edge of the book

Bottom edge of the book

This means that 24-inch-long sheets, painted and calligraphed on both sides, were pierced and folded over each other and then tied to the outer housing through the center of the fold (though our current housing is definitely later than the book). Since all the sheets were folded together we are left with a distinct peak in the center of the manuscript which recedes in a teardrop shape as the folded sheets increase in number. This is very different from familiar Western style binding where small groups or quires of sheets are folded together and then the ends of the full book block are cut for uniform edges.

The marroon folded housing

The maroon folded housing

Decorative centerfold with ties

Decorative centerfold with ties

As you can see above, while perusing the manuscript for interesting images, I came across another very surprising feature of the book. Many of the illuminated miniatures in the second section are unfinished.

proof proof2The incompleteness of the images affords us insight into the process of this manuscript’s creation.

I hope that showcasing this beautiful object will bring it to the attention of someone more knowledgeable than I, who can help us discover more about this wonderful (and under-described) manuscript.  Cotsen has such a diverse range of unusual or unexpected artifacts, books, and objects. As always, this blog series is supposed to inspire researchers to see what else they can find in our collection.

The entire manuscript has been digitized and can be viewed here:

Tiger tailpiece!

Tiger tailpiece!

Cotsen’s Covert Collections: The First Illustrated Book Printed in Turkey

The other day I was perusing the catalog, looking at records in some of Cotsen’s smaller language collections. When I searched for our holdings in the Turkish language, I found something really surprising and rare (okay you caught me, I was looking for blog post material). Cotsen’s Turkish language holdings are relatively small compared with other languages in the collection. But we still hold around 130 items, mostly pamphlets and educational material printed in the 1980’s and 90’s, some earlier 20th Century material, and one copy of Musavver tarih-i hayvanat (Encylopedia of Wild-life) printed in 1892 (Cotsen 102716).

So you might imagine my surprise when I came across this book in the catalog: Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi; el musemma bi-Haidis-i nev; the first illustrated book printed in the Turkish language and the Muslim world.

Rebound in blind-tooled morocco, probably 20th Century. Cotsen 3134.

Rebound in blind-tooled morocco, probably 20th Century American. The leaves of Cotsen’s copy, probably rearranged when rebound, were collated in 1980 and found to be out of order, especially at the beginning and end of the text block. Since Ottoman Turkish reads right to left, this mistake is understandable. Page citations below follow these reviewed pagination marks when available. Cotsen 3134.

Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi; el musemma bi-Haidis-i nev (The History of the India of the West according to recent discoveries) was printed in 1730 (1142 AH) by Ibrahim Müteferrika in Konstantiniyye (Constantinople, not changed to Istanbul until 1929). Muteferrika is an honorific title meaning “court-steward”, which Ibrahim received between 1705 and 1711. Though his original name remains unknown, he was born in Kolozsvár, Transylvania between 1672 and 1675 as a Unitarian Christian who only later converted to Islam.1

An Arabic Quran had been printed in Italy as early as 1537. Jewish and Christian millets (minority religious communities within the Ottoman Empire abiding by separate legal courts) had already been operating presses by Müteferrika’s times. But he would prove to be a true reformer; becoming the first Muslim printer and the first to print with movable type in the Ottoman Turkish language (written in a Perso-Arabic script until the Latin alphabet was adopted in 1928)


Ibrahim Müteferrika

Agitating against a manuscript culture over eleven hundred years old, Müteferrika lobbied for a state supported printing press in 1726. Facing initial heavy opposition from court appointed calligraphers and a few Ottoman Ulama (religious authorities), he was granted permission to print non-religious and non-legal works the next year. By 1729, Müteferrika issued his first printed work: Kitab-ı Lügat-ı Vankulu (Sihah El-Cevheri), an Arabic and Turkish lexicon. The press ran until 1742, and in just fourteen years he printed seventeen works totaling 13,200 volumes. Most volumes, including Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi (Müteferrika’s fourth work), were printed in 500-copy editions and only received one printing.

Müteferrika’s publishing choices, some of which he authored himself, demonstrate his diverse knowledge and the interests he developed during his official capacity as an Ottoman diplomat. He published books on history, geography, astronomy, translation, military matters, and polemics for the modernization of the Ottoman state. Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi, demonstrates his interest in the first three subjects.

Originating from a Turkish manuscript by an unknown author written around 1580, the book opens with a short discussion regarding cosmology, particularly the geocentric vs. heliocentric models of the universe, and then moves on to a general geographical discussion. Though rebound to the back of our copy (in this case meaning the left-hand side), this section includes beautifully executed plates:

Geocentric model of the universe. Fold-out chart [95]

Geocentric model of the universe. Fold-out chart [95]


Map of the known world. Spread [93]


Western and Eastern hemispheres. Spread [94]

The bulk of Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi, however, focuses on Central and South America; the regions’ 16th Century conquest by Spain, their peoples, places, flora, and fauna. This material consists entirely of translations taken piecemeal from five 16th Century Spanish volumes about the conquest of the New World. The content of these five volumes was probably made available to the original Turkish author via Italian translations. Venetian printers, after all, were among the few European traders who had access to Turkish markets for much of the late Medieval and Renaissance eras.2

Possible title pages or chapter headings for these different sections. Leaves [4] and [1]

Possible title pages or chapter headings for these different sections. Leaves [4] and [1] respectively.

Müteferrika’s choice to publish Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi as his first illustrated book is significant. Given that much of the source material borders on fantasy (many of the original Spanish authors never even visited “New Spain”) the woodcuts executed by an unknown artist working solely from the descriptions in the text are highly imaginative:

Mermen in an altercation with locals. Leaf 49 recto

Mermen in an altercation with locals. Leaf 49, recto.

Waterfowl . . . and some other kind of four legged bird? Leaf 55 verso

Waterfowl . . . and some other kind of four legged bird? Leaf 55 verso

Hunting. Perhaps a jaguar in the top right? Leaf 86, recto

Hunting. Perhaps a jaguar in the top right? Leaf 86, recto

The bountiful New World, where women grow from trees. . . Leaf 15, recto

The bountiful New World, where women grow from trees. . . Leaf 15, recto

The illustrations appear to be chosen for their wow factor, depicting images of the most unusual and foreign aspects of this unknown land. In the Muslim world, Tarih ul-Hind il-Garbi remained the definitive text about the New World for a culture that would share only limited contact with these far away lands until the 19th Century.


Hunting a tree demon? With your trusty lama (who may be under attack by a bird)? Leaf 5, verso


Two birds with what might be a jobo and banana tree. Leaf [89] verso

Tapirs? Leaf 46, verso

Tapirs? Leaf 46, verso

In 1745, three years after Müteferrika’s print shop closed for good, he died. Whether or not his press was closed due to political and religious pressure, remains speculative. What is known, however, is that for almost forty years after Müteferrika’s death, Muslim printing died with him. Besides a re-issue of his first work in 1755, printing would not be re-introduced to Constantinople and the Muslim world until 1783.

His scholarly and reformist initiative was hard won and influential. He remains a seminal figure in the history of printing and a figure remembered (but largely unheeded in his time) for his attempts to modernize and revitalize a waning empire. Perhaps Müteferrika read the writing on the wall for an empire that was just beginning to show the technological and political stagnation that would earn it the nickname of the “sick man of Europe”, around a hundred years after Müteferrika’s death.

Untranslated inscriptions. First blank [1]

Untranslated inscriptions. First blank [1]

  1.  Watson, William J.. “İbrāhīm Müteferriḳa and Turkish Incunabula”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 88.3 (1968): 435–441. Web…
  2.  Goodrich, Thomas D.. “Tarihi-i Hind-i Garbi: An Ottoman Book on the New World”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 107.2 (1987): 317–319. Web…