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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 68

Quran scroll Southern Indian (Carnatic), late eighteenth century

Manuscript written in ghubar script in red and black inks with gold metallic paints on gold-flecked paper rolled inside on a spindle with ivory handles in sandalwood case | 366.0 × 5.4 cm | RCIN 1005002

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This southern Indian Quran scroll is over three and a half metres long but little more than five centimetres wide. It fits into a small, cylindrical sandalwood case out of which it can be rolled by turning the small ivory handles. All 114 chapters of the Quran fit onto its narrow surface written in black and red ink in a minuscule naskh script known as ghubar (‘dust’), which was initially developed for sending messages by carrier pigeon.[222] The text is composed so that as the scroll is rolled the tiny words form the larger shape of the talismanic ‘throne verse’ from surat al-baqara (Quran 2:255), as well as geometric patterns and individual floral motifs.

Known in Arabic as ayat al-Kursi, the ‘throne verse’ is considered by many the most important in the Quran. It condenses in its 50 words the meaning of tawhid, ‘the oneness of God’ as the creator and sustainer of the universe, the basic tenet of Islamic monotheistic faith:

God – there is no god but He, the Living, the Great Sustainer. Neither drowsiness nor sleep overtakes Him. To Him belongs what is in the heavens and what is in the earth. Who is the one that would intercede with Him – except by His permission? He knows what is in front of them and what is behind them. And they cannot encompass any part of His knowledge, except that He should wish. His throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and keeping watch over them does not overwhelm Him. And He is the Exalted One, the Great.[223]

The fact that the Quran was intended to be recited aloud is confirmed in the rhythm and assonance of its Arabic verses, and the ayat al-Kursi is one of the most linguistically striking.[224] It has an internal symmetry with the phrase ‘He knows what is in front of them and what is behind them’, emphasising the omniscience of God, at the centre, with the earlier lines reflected in those which come after.

The physical written word of the Quran is believed to contain barakat, ‘blessing’. This verse in particular is considered to impart spiritual and physical protection and is therefore frequently chosen to adorn buildings and personal, portable objects.

The scroll may have been presented to George IV from one of the Nawabs of the Carnatic (see p. 30). A comparable scroll of the Bustan of Sa’di, written in Vellore, opens with a dedication in Persian to George III. It arrived in England in 1790 and was examined by the Secretary of the East India Board of Control but was never handed on to its intended recipient. It was instead passed from Henry Dundas, later Viscount Melville (President of the Board of Control 1793–1801), to his son Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville (President of the Board of Control 1807–9), who donated it to the University of St Andrews in 1847.[225]

  • [221] See Inventory A, RL 1155585, p. 172.

    [222] See Safwat 1996, pp. 184–93.

    [223] Quran 2:255, translated in Mir 2008, p. 50.

    [224] See Nelson 1985.

    [225] St Andrews University Library, MS 31(o). Other comparable Quran scrolls include Bodl. MS Laud Or. Rolls g.2, given to the Bodleian by Turner Camac in 1787, and Royal Asiatic Society, Arabic 8. 

  • Entered the Royal Collection before 1826 [221]