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Volume 48, Number 6November/December 1997

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"The Most Splendid Manuscript"

Written by Caroline Stone
Illustrated by The Royal Collection

Some opportunities occur not once in a liftime, nor once in a century, but just once, period. Unless you belong to Englands royal family, it is only now that you can see more than two pages at a time of the Padshahnamah, one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts from Mughaf India. For reasons of conservation, this 17th century book has been, for the first and only time, unbound. Its 45 glorious illustrations were shown first in Delhi, in honor of the 50th anniversary of India's independence, and later in London; through the end of 1998 they are on view in the United States. After the Padshahnamah is rebound, it will be returned to its glass case in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, where visitors can view oniy the pages to which it is opened.

The Mughals were the second wave of conquerors who brought Islam to India. Descendants of the Mongols—their name is a Persian form of "Mongol"—they came from what is now Afghanistan shortly after 1500. Their first emperor was Babur, who claimed descent on his mother's side from Genghis Khan and on his father's side from Timur (Tamerlane)—an impressive genealogy! Throughout its roughly two centuries of rule, the Mughal court showed a passion for the arts and sciences: for painting, architecture, natural history and philosophy. Under its patronage, both men and women wrote autobiographies, poetry and letters. Babur and his descendants were, like their Persian and Mongol relatives to the west and north, deeply concerned that the histories of their reigns should be set down in as detailed and elegant a way as possible. (See Aramco World, May/June 1997.)

Though the extent of their empire was rarely stable, it was always considerable, and the Mughals grew to be perhaps the richest ruling house of their era. Their main competitor for that title would have been China; Spain, in spite of the new-found, fabled treasures of the New World, was in fact poor in comparison. The Mughals could afford to indulge their wishes on an unrivaled scale. And so, the books they commissioned were as magnificent as their buildings, and among those books, the Padshahnamah is a crown jewel.

The Padshahnamah, which literally means "Chronicle of the King of the World," was commissioned by the emperor Shah Jahan as a record of his reign, just as the Akbamamah had set down the achievements of his grandfather, Akbar. The scholar chosen for Shah Jahan's task, Abdul Hamid Lahawri, was famous for his flowery style, but whether his age prevented him from completing the work, or whether the folios chronicling the final two of Shah Jahan's three decades of rule were lost or destroyed, we may never know: Today, the Padshahnama covers only the first decade of Shah Jahan's reign.

In 1639, when the Padshahnamah was commissioned, Shah Jahan was, in addition to his affairs of state, preoccupied with another artistic project: the building of a tomb to commemorate his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who had died giving birth to their 14th child some years before. The tomb became known as the Taj Mahal. He was also struggling both with far-flung insurrections and domestic friction between his two eldest sons, the free-thinking Dara Shikoh, his favorite, and the austere Awrangzeb, who would forcibly succeed his father in 1658.

It is hardly surprising, then, that in the Padshahnamah, Shah Jahan appears glad to dwell upon the happier past. The paintings recount his personal triumphs as a young man; his father, the emperor Jahangir, congratulating him on his victories; processions and celebrations; and especially the imperial marriage of the heir-apparent, Dara Shikoh. (See pages 22 and 23.) In other paintings we see Shah Jahan as a young man rescuing a servant from a lion; we see the young Awrangzeb heroically confronting a maddened elephant, and several times in the Padshahnamah, Shah Jahan, naturally enough, seems pleased to think of his story repeating itself in the persons of his sons.

Indeed, with the Padshahnamah, Shah Jahan was following a family tradition of historiography. Almost every Mughal ruler caused to be produced an official history of his reign. Shah Jahan's father, Jahangir, kept a diary, known as the Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri. He wrote that when a fair copy was ready "I ordered those in charge of the royal library to bind the account of the twelve-year period in a single volume and to make a number of copies for me, both to give to people in my service and to send to other countries to be used by the rulers as a manual of statesmanship. On August 20th, 1618, one of the secretaries brought me a copy written out in full and bound. As it was the very first copy, I gave it to my son Shah Jahan, whom I consider the foremost of my sons in everything."

Shah Jahan followed in his forefathers' footsteps. The Padshahnamah, like the earlier family chronicles, was written in Persian. This was the Mughal court language, although Chagatay Turkish, the language in which Babur had written his autobiography, lingered on for private family use. Arabic was regarded as a holy language not to be used for secular matters, but only for the study of the Qur'an, for prayer and for interpretation and disposition of shari'ah, or Islamic law.

Abdul Hamid Lahawri's text for the Padshahnamah was copied by the famous calligrapher Muhammad Amin al-Mashhadi, who did not complete his task until 1657. As was often done at the time, he left blank spaces on the large folios. These were to be filled in subsequently by the miniaturists, who would know exactly what subject to choose for the space. In their task, the painters would draw on detailed court archives, and possibly also on sketches by official draftsmen, which would tell them precisely who was present at which occasion, and in what position they should be depicted according to their political standing. They would also learn what gifts were offered, what Shah Jahan wore, and numerous other points of significance for their task.

But the Padshahnamah is interesting and unusual in that these spaces were not filled in the normal way in the royal workshops. Before unraveling what actually happened, however, let us consider for a moment the general question of painting at the Mughal court.

By the time of Shah Jahan's accession, the wealth of India was attracting increasing numbers of foreign diplomats and traders. The Dutch, Portuguese and English were trying especially hard to set up trading posts and even colonies in the southern and western reaches of the Mughal realm. To do so, they were bidding actively for diplomatic privileges at the court of the "Great Mogul," as they called the emperor.

The Mughals, however, were not particularly interested in trade with the West. By and large, India produced everything considered needful and much more besides. Nonetheless, they were curious about Europe and, more to the point, they wanted to negotiate favorable terms for the transport and protection of pilgrims to and from Makkah, since by the 17th century it was no longer the Arabs but, to a large extent, the Europeans who controlled the waters between Arabia and India. The Mughals, besides wanting to ensure the safety of their own family members on the Hajj, also felt responsible for the many subjects who likewise set off to visit the holy places. This was the European envoys' strongest bargaining point.

Several of the European visitors left accounts of their missions. An early English ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, lamented the difficulty of finding suitable presents for Jahangir, a man who literally had everything. Among the gifts well received in the Mughal court, however, were paintings, and one of the miniatures in the Padshahnamah shows a row of European paintings behind Jahangir's throne. (See page 21.)

These gifts from afar influenced the court painting of the period. The miniatures produced at the court of Shah Jahan show a more thoughtful approach to perspective and to portraiturethan do works of the previous century. Compared to the often stylized earlier miniatures from Persia, Central Asia or Herat, seat of the Timurid empire, the Padshahnamah paintings are sophisticated. They are not simple generic illustrations for "the hunt" or "the feast" and so on; rather, they are accurate, almost empirical records, which, like press photographs today, could be retrieved from an archive to check protocol: Who stood where? Who wore what? How did the foreigners dispose their cannons at such-and-such a siege? What were the fortifications of this town like before their destruction? Today, of course, the paintings supply us too with a wealth of reliable detail on many aspects of Mughal life.

Similarly, it is also interesting to have so many portraits of the advisers, generals, shaykhs and even the artists themselves, all of whom played such important roles in the history of northern India. Knowing what they really looked like makes them less remote and more memorable.

A good example of this is Asaf Khan, who appears in numerous miniatures in a position close to the reigning sovereign. In the Padshahnamah, he appears accompanying Shah Jahan's young sons into the emperor's presence at the latter's accession ceremony. Asaf Khan, himself the son of a high official, was the father of Mumtaz Mahal, and thus Shah Jahan's father-in-law; he was also Shah Jahan's chief minister and tutor to his sons Dara Shikoh and Awrangzeb. Asaf Khan's sister, Nur Jahan, was Jahangir's favorite wife, and her influence in political matters was paramount in her time. She was also a fine poet and a fair shot, and she cultivated a passion for design in textiles, carpets, fashion and interiors. Thus, though she herself is not portrayed in the Padshahnamah, the beautiful settings, costumes and embroidered hangings that appear in many of the paintings doubtless owe a good deal to her influence. Thus it is hardly surprising that Asaf Khan appears in no fewer than 18 paintings in the Padshahnamah!

The miniatures of the Padshahnamah do not show only European influences, but also possibly Far Eastern ones-a tribute to the far-flung contacts of the Mughal Empire. Roe and other sources tell us that the Portuguese were beginning to import Japanese goods from their trading station at Deshima and that paper, lacquer and sword blades were in great demand. One or two miniatures seem to show the influence of these contacts, both in the coloring and in the stylizarion of the landscape. The effect is elegant and the contrast with other scenes in the volume greatly adds to the Padshahnamah's overall richness and variety.

In 1657, the copying of the Padshahnamah, as far as it goes, was complete. The blanks in the text waited to be filled with paintings. But the following year, Awrangzeb entered Agra and took his father prisoner. In 1659, Awrangzeb had Dara Shikoh executed, sent his head to his father in a covered dish, and assumed the Mughal throne. Memories of this were to haunt Awrangzeb in his later years as he, perhaps the richest man in the world, lived out his last days copying the Qur'an and sewing caps to pay for his funeral with the labor of his own hands.

But who, then, filled in the Padshahnamah with paintings, and when was this done? The paintings are by no fewer than 13 identifiable artists (most of whom included self-portraits within at least one painting), including some of the most famous miniaturists of the Mughal court. But as is pointed out by Milo Beach, director of the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler galleries in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Padshahnamah exhibition, the manuscript is in fact a collage. Paintings have not only been trimmed from their original sizes to fit the spaces left by the calligrapher, but on several occasions the paintings inserted do not exactly match the text. Clearly the assembly of the book was carried out after personal memory of the events in question had faded.

The paintings that were chosen are thus correct as to general subject, but not always accurate as to date. For example, in one we see Shah Jahan, in the splendor of his middle years, honoring Awrangzeb at the latter's wedding in 1637. At a supposedly earlier date, Shah Jahan is shown in another painting hunting deer, but depicted as a noticeably older man than at his son's wedding. Presumably the hunting scene was simply pulled out of the royal archive to fit the subject of that part of the text. In fact, given the apparent age of Shah Jahan in it, the portrait must date from shortly before he was imprisoned by Awrangzeb. Perhaps this painting is a record of one of his last hunting expeditions as a free man.

The way the book was put together does not in any way detract from its splendor. On the contrary, it gives us richer and more varied illustrations than we would have had if a single artist had completed the book as it was originally commissioned. Furthermore, both the Mughals and the Ottomans had the habit of making up lesser albums in this collage fashion, and so, in this regard too, the Padshahnamah exhibits traditional characteristics of the arts of the book. But the more difficult question remains: Who ordered the manuscript to be completed?

It was, quite obviously, not Shah Jahan, for he would surely have had the paintings done directly on the pages, in the spaces prepared, by court artists. Awrangzeb? No. He disapproved of the arts in general, even though a good deal was nonetheless produced during his reign. Even more, Awrangzeb hated his elder brother Dara Shikoh, of whom the Padshahnamah is lavish in its praise. The most plausible hypothesis places its assembly in the early 18th century, when Awrangzeb's death in 1707 and his "divide and rule" policies had provoked exactly the general decline that he had so much feared, and the court was turning back in nostalgia to a time that was increasingly regarded as the zenith of the Mughal dynasty.

Thus it may have been between Awrangzeb's death and the 1739 destruction of Delhi that someone going through the royal library, or the remains of the often-looted treasury, decided to complete the volume from the existing stock of paintings of major events. Here it is helpful to understand that court painters in fact produced many paintings that were never incorporated into albums, and they did so to maintain a royal archive that was as important then as an archive of photographs would be today.

The deterioration of the Mughal house over the 18th century, and its final dissolution in the early 19th, brought unrest throughout India as principalities vied against each other. The British, desirous of a stability that would secure trade and increasingly capable of themselves filling the vacuum left by the Mughal decline, annexed much of the country by treaty and conquest. They took full control at Delhi in 1803, and exiled the last Mughal ruler by mid-century.

In 1797, the British Governor General of India, Lord Teignmouth, working under a commission from King George III, paid a state visit to the Nawab (ruler) of Lucknow. The following letter, dated June 1799, is preserved in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle:

"When Lord Teignmouth was at Luknow, a Book was produced to him out of the Nabob's Library, as a most splendid of oriental manuscripts and its acceptance was pushed upon him. Lord Teignmouth declined receiving it with an observation that it was fit for a royal Library. The observation however suggested the idea, that as a literary curiosity it might be acceptable to the King of Great Britain, and he mentioned it afterwards to the minister at Luknow, that he would not hesitate to accept it, in the idea of depositing it in the royal Library if his Majesty would think proper to allow it. The Book, with five others suggested by the Minister, as elegant specimens of Persian writing, were sent to Calcutta, after Lord Teignmouth's departure, and forwarded by his Attorneys to Europe. They have been lately received by Lord Teignmouth, and are now in his possession; he will be happy to be honored with his Majesty's orders respecting them."

Among Lord Teignmouth's descriptions of the five manuscripts there is this note: "This is the most splendid Persian manuscript I ever saw. Many of the faces are very well painted and some of them are portraits. The first is the portrait of Timur or Tamerlane, and the second that of Shahjehan. This was the book which was shown to me at Luknow, and I was there informed that the deceased Nabob Asophuddoulah purchased it for 12,000 rupees, or about £1550."

And thus the Padshahnamah, commissioned by an Eastern emperor and completed mysteriously after his death, passed into the possession of a Western king. The present opportunity to view it in its fullness is one not to be missed.

Historian and writer Caroline Stone lives in Seville, where she teaches for the University of Wisconsin. Her latest book is Mantónes de Manila (Manila Shawls).

This article appeared on pages 18-31 of the November/December 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1997 images.