Asian and African studies blog

7 posts from February 2013

28 February 2013

A 19th century album of imperial calligraphy

One of the items on exhibit in ‘Mughal India’ is an album containing examples of some of the best calligraphers of 19th century Delhi. Unfortunately we were only able to display one opening in the exhibition, which was copied by the last Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ (ruled 1837-1857), famous as a poet and calligrapher. It contains two verses in Arabic in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, taken from the introduction to the Gulistan  ('Rose garden') by the 13th century Persian writer Saʻdi. In more recent times they have become famous after being sung by popular qawwali singers in Pakistan: 

He attained the heights in his perfection;
he obscured all darkness with his beauty.
Beauteous is his every quality.
Invoke blessings on him and his Family.

Calligraphy by the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II (Add.21474, f. 3)   noc

Equally impressive are examples by two of his sons. One contains verses in the shape of a lion, signed by Mirza Darabakht Vali 'Ahd (‘heir to the throne’) Bahadur. Mirza Darabakht (1790–1849) was Bahadur Shah’s eldest son and heir until his death of a fever in 1849.

Add.21474_f4v_700Calligraphy by Prince Darabakht, heir to the throne (Add.21474, f. 4)  noc

Darabakht’s death brought about a constitutional crisis when, by agreement with the British, his younger brother Mirza Fakhr al-Din (1816-1856) was appointed heir in 1852, contrary to the wishes of his father. Fakhr al-Din was also a poet and calligrapher, who died of cholera while still comparatively young. The example below, which includes the same verses as his father's above, is signed with his official titles, Mirza Muhammad Sultan Fath al-Mulk Shah Vali ʻAhd Bahadur, and is dated 1271 (1854/55). 

Add.21474_11_700Calligraphy by Prince Muhammad Sultan Fath al-Mulk Shah (Add.21474, f. 5)  noc

The album also includes two examples of calligraphy by Sayyid Muhammad Amir Rizvi 'Panjahkash', a famous calligrapher of Delhi who died in 1857. According to the Urdu writer Khvajah Hasan Nizami (1878-1955), he used to give away examples of his calligraphy to the poor who were able to earn very high prices from reselling them (cited by Jafri, p. 145, see below). 

Add.21474_08_700Calligraphy, dated 1268 (1851/52) by Sayyid Muhammad Amir (Add.21474, f. 6)   noc

Other examples include verses in Pashto, Kashmiri and Punjabi by Muʻjiz Raqam Khan Qandahari.

This volume demonstrates the importance of calligraphy in 19th century Delhi where it is still regarded as an important art, though unfortunately lacking the popular appeal of former times (see Islamic Calligraphy: In search of a lifeline).

This volume was presented to the British Museum on 11 July 1856 by Lewin Bowring (1824-1910) who joined the Bengal Civil Service in 1843 and was private Secretary to the Viceroy from 1858 to 1862. The British Library is also fortunate in having his unique collection of biographical and genealogical material on Indian princes, chiefs, and other notables which was acquired by the India Office Library in 1959 (Mss Eur G38).


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies   ccownwork

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Further reading

William Dalrymple, The last Mughal, the fall of a dynasty, Delhi, 1857. London: Bloomsbury, 2006

S.Z.H. Jafri, “Education and transmission of knowledge”, in Recording the progress of Indian history: Symposia papers of the Indian History Congress 1992-2010. Delhi: Primus Books, 2012


23 February 2013

Pigeon keeping: a popular Mughal pastime

Keeping and training pigeons has been a universally popular pastime from time immemorial. The Mughals were no exception. Pigeons were bred at court and also imported from distant countries. Abu’l-Fazl (see previous blog) writes of Akbar’s pleasure at receiving ‘fairy-flying’ pigeons from the Mughals' homeland Farghana in Central Asia, along with a skilled pigeon-fancier, Ḥabīb (Akbarnamah, events of regnal year 31).


J.18,18_700Portrait of Zayn Khan Kokah (c.1542–1601), Governor of Kabul. This portrait dating from around 1595 has been extended in the 17th century by the addition of some pigeons and a dovecote to make it a standard size to fit into an album (Johnson Album 18, 18)

In the Āʼīn-i Akbarī (‘Akbar’s regulations’), Abu’l-Fazl devotes a whole section (Book 2, Āʼīn 29) to amusements which include pigeon-flying (ʻishqbāzī), breeding and the different colours of the royal pigeons. Altogether there were estimated to be more than 20,000 pigeons at Akbar’s court, but only 500 were select (khāṣṣah). When the emperor moved camp, the pigeons were taken as well, with bearers carring their portable dovecotes. Pigeons were trained to do quite complicated manoevres: the wheel (charkh) “a lusty movement ending with the pigeon throwing itself over in a full circle” and turning somersaults (bāzī). A select pigeon could perform 15 charkhs and 70 bazis in one session. Although ordinary people were amused by pigeon flying, His Majesty, Abu’l-Fazl writes, “uses the occupation as a way of reducing unsettled, worldly-minded men to obedience, and avails himself of it as a means productive of harmony and friendship.” (Blochmann’s translation, see below). 

Pigeons were also important in communications, with particular breeds being trained for this purpose. Abu'l-Fazl singles out the Raṭh pigeon as a good carrier. As recently as 2002 pigeons still played a role in the Orissa Police Pigeon Service (Independent, 21 March 2002). 


IO Isl 4811_f2-3_700The Kabūtarnāmah, an illustrated pigeon manual copied in 1788, here showing a training session and some different types of pigeon (IO Islamic 4811, ff. 2v-3) noc

Sayyid Mu
ammad Mūsavī’s Book of pigeons

One of the most visually attractive items in the exhibition ‘Mughal India’ is IO Islamic 4811, ‘The book of pigeons’ (kabūtarnāmah), by Sayyid Muḥammad Mūsavī whose poetical name was Vālih. This work consists of a poem of 163 couplets, followed by a short prose treatise explaining the different types of pigeons, their colours and characteristics, and the art of pigeon-flying. It was written, as a gesture of friendship, for one Miyān Khūban who asked for an elegantly written account of pigeon flying.

Muḥammad Mūsavī Vālih was born in Khurasan, migrated to Hyderabad and then moved to Arcot (Tamil Nadu) where he died in 1184 (1770/71). He wrote several other works including a Sufi masnavi (poetic tale) called Najm al-huda, and a poem on cock-fighting (See Storey below, pp. 410-11).

IO Isl 4811_f5_700How do I get him down again? (IO Islamic 4811, f. 5v)  noc


The Darwin connection

Charles Darwin (1809-82) was himself a keen pigeon fancier and set up a breeding loft at his home in the village of Downe, Kent. In the course of his research he corresponded with Sir Walter Elliot (1803-1887) a naturalist and ethnologist working in the Madras Civil Service. Darwin knew about Abu’l-Fazl’s chapter on pigeons (see Darwin and Elliot’s correspondence 1856-59): "I should mention that I have heard that such exist in the Ayin Akbaree in Persian (I know not whether I have spelt this right) but as this work is translated I can consult it in the India House [i.e. India Office Library, now part of the British Library collections!]". Elliot supplied Darwin with skins of various birds from India and Burma in 1856 and also sent him an English translation of Sayyid Muḥammad Mūsavī’s treatise which Darwin referred to twice in The variation of animals and plants under domestication. London: John Murray, 1868 (vol. 1 pp.141 and 155).

Fancypigeonscont00lyel_0161_700From J.C. Lyell’s Fancy pigeons, 3rd ed. London: Gill, 1887, facing p. 120

This fact was mentioned by James C. Lyell in his Fancy pigeons: containing full directions for their breeding and management, with descriptions of every known variety. 3rd revised ed. London: Gill, 1887. Lyell wrote to Darwin asking about Elliot's translation (p. 104): “but he [Darwin] replied that he was unable to find it in his library, and feared that, as it was in loose sheets, it had been mislaid. I then wrote to Sir Walter Elliot, asking him if he still had the original in Persian. He informed me it was lost, with his library, on the voyage home.” Fortunately Elliot rediscovered his translation and sent it to Lyell who published Sayyid Muḥammad Mūsavī’s introduction as a postscript to his 3rd edition (pp. 412-4).

Darwin’s collection of pigeon skeletons and skins, which he donated to the British Museum in 1867, are currently featured as ‘Museum Treasures’ of the Natural History Museum.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies



Further reading

Abū’l-Fażl ʻAllāmī,   The Ain i Akbari; translated by H. Blochmann and H. S. Jarrett. 3v. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1873-1894.

C.S. Storey, Persian literature; a bio-bibliographical survey. London: Luzac & co, 1927-

18 February 2013

A Jewel in the Crown

A 15th century illustrated copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.6810)

This beautiful copy of the Khamsah (five poems) by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami first entered the Imperial Library in Akbar's reign and was without doubt one of the most valuable manuscripts in the collection. The Mughals typically categorised their books according to value and content and nearly all the finest copies carry gradings and valuations. This manuscript was classified as ‘Select’ (khāṣṣah), and ‘Class one grade one’ (avval avval) – John Seyller (see below) lists only five others of equal status. Its importance lies chiefly in its decoration and illustrations which include miniatures by the master-painter of Herat, Bihzad (flourished during the reign of the Timurid Husayn Bayqara, 1469-1506). However, with more than 70 inscriptions and seal impressions, it also contains significant material to undertake the somewhat challenging task of working out its history! I’ll be writing more about what can be learned from this kind of study later.

Or6810_f37v_720From the story of ʻKhusraw and Shirinʼ. The elders plea with King Hormuzd to forgive his son Khusraw. Ascribed to Bihzad (Or.6810, f. 37v)   noc

The time and place of origin

Unfortunately the manuscript has no colophon—which might otherwise have conveniently supplied the date and place of copying. However, in a miniature depicting Khusraw arriving at Shirin’s palace (f. 62v), one of the arches carries an inscription reading ‘Prepared for the library of the great Amir, the just, the most courageous Amir ʻAli Fārsī Barlās, may his rule last until the day of resurrection’. A Mirza Ahmad ʻAli Farsi Barlas is mentioned by the emperor Babur in his memoirs as an amir of the Timurid Sultan Husayn Bayqara who ruled Herat from 1469 to 1506. He is described by Babur as being both elegant and a scoundrel with a talent for and understanding of poetry while not actually composing it himself (see Thackston below, p.205).

Dedication on Or.6810, f. 62     noc

Another painting (f. 214r) is more specifically dated 900 (1494/95) in an inscription in the arch of a window.

This all suggests a date of around 1494/95 and Herat as the city of origin. There is also a dedicatory inscription in Arabic contained in the shamsah on folio 3r.

Shamsah_720Shamsah (Or.6810, f. 3r)    noc

This reads (Wheeler Thackston’s translation, see John Seyller below):

This is a quintet for one whose five sound senses and five perplexed (inner senses?) can bear witness to its worth, one who will never in his life reckon “the five pilfered ones” (the five intercalary days added to the end of the Persian year), one in whom the five of the “family of the cloak” take pride, lord of the throne of the niqaba in glory, the conquering one, sultan of naqibs, Amir Rażī al-Dīn ʻAbd al-Muṭṭalib, may he help people until doomsday.

Some Royal inscriptions

Despite his inability to read and write (see Ellen Smart below), several minimal inscriptions have been attributed to Akbar, but the habitual notes by the Mughal emperors, found on their most valuable manuscripts, really only began with Jahangir and were continued by Shah Jahan, after whom the practice seems to have been discontinued. This manuscript is one of over 20 known to have included inscriptions of both rulers. To the left of the shamsah on folio 3r is an inscription by Jahangir, written just a few weeks after his accession to the throne.

God is Great. On the fifth of Azar year 1 (Nov 1605) [this book] entered the library of this supplicant at the Divine Court. Written by Nūr al-Dīn Jahāngīr [son of] Akbar Pādshāh in the year 1014 (1605). This Khamsah is one of the select (khāṣṣah) books. [It has] twenty-two paintings, the work of Ustād Bihzād and others. Sixteen are the work of Bihzād, and five are the work of Mīrak, and one is the work of ʻAbd al-Razzāq. Value five thousand rupees.


6810 f3_720Folio 3r containing a shamsah, the classification, Shah Jahan’s seal dated 1037 (1628) and inscriptions by Jahangir and Shah Jahan   noc

 Underneath a second inscription, by Shah Jahan, says:

God is Great. This Khamsah of the eloquent and famous Shaykh Niẓāmī, may God have mercy on him, entered the library of this supplicant at the Divine Court on the twenty-fifth of the month of Bahman Ilāhī, corresponding to the eighth of the month of Jumādā II year 1037 Hijri (14 February 1628), which is the day of the blessed accession. Written by Shihāb al-Dīn Muḥammad Shāh Jahān Pādshāh, son of Jahāngīr Pādshāh, son of Akbar Pādshāh Ghāzī.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies    ccownwork

Further reading

Ebadollah Bahari, Bihzad: Master of Persian Painting. London: IB Tauris, 1996. See pp. 129-56 for a description of the paintings in this manuscript
John Seyller, "The Inspection and Valuation of Manuscripts in the Imperial Mughal library”, Artibus Asiae 57 no 3/4 (1997), pp. 243-349
Babur, The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor; translated by W. M. Thackston. New York: Modern Library, 2002
Ellen Smart, ”Akbar, Illiterate Genius”, in Kalādarśana: American Studies in the Art of India, ed. J. Williams (New Delhi: OUP and IBH Publishing Co.,1981), pp. 99-I07


13 February 2013

East-West knowledge transfer in Mughal India

Christoph Clavius’ Gnomonices Libri Octo (Rome, 1581) and the Kitāb al-Maqāyīs [li-Kalāwīyūs], translated by Mu‘tamad Khān Rustam b. Qubād al-Badakhshī (d. 1705)

Christoph Clavius was born in Bamberg in either 1538 or 1537 (an amusing discrepancy for a scientist whose fame derives from his work on calendar reform) and was initiated into the Jesuit order by Saint Ignatius Loyola himself in Rome in 1555, and passed away in 1612, an eminent scholar. Many of Clavius’ works were influenced by Latin translations of Arabic scientific works, including those of Ibn Rushd (in particular his commentary on Aristotle), the astronomers Abū Ma‘shar, al-Biṭrūjī and al-Farghānī, as well as the mathematician Thābit b. Qurra, among many other scientists writing in Arabic and Persian whose works Clavius cites.

Book 4 of Christoph Clavius, Gnomonices Libri Octo published in Rome in 1581 (533.k.2, pp. 442-43)

Clavius is an excellent example of the many Jesuit scientists of his age who continued to teach Ptolemaic astronomy (i.e., a geocentric vision of the solar system, indeed the universe, in which the planets and stars orbited the earth in concentric circles), despite the rise of – and often despite their own familiarity with and endorsement of – Copernican astronomy. Christoph Clavius’ Gnomonices Libri Octo, on the art of gnomonics (timekeeping through the use of a sundial), was published in 1581. 

IO Isl 1308_6_720Mu‘tamid Khān's Arabic translation of the identical passage (IO Islamic 1308, ff. 289v-290)

This work also exists in a fascinating Arabic translation emanating from the Mughal empire that was purchased by Richard Johnson (1753-1807), a well-known collector of manuscripts and miniature paintings who worked for the East India Company. Johnson made an annotation on the flyleaf of the manuscript that the translator of Clavius’ work was sent to Portugal by Aurangzeb – presumably to study or in some diplomatic capacity. The full note reads, “Upon Dialling.  Work of Clavius in Latin translated into Arabic by Maatemed Khan who went to Portugal in the time of Aurungzebe. This is the original foul copy of the translation in the hand of the translator” (i.e., the ‘foul copy’ being the first draft, in contrast to the ‘fair copy’). 

IO Isl 1308_1_720
Richard Johnson's explanatory note (IO Islamic 1308)


A further note, in Arabic, added by the translator’s son, reads: “Draft of the Book of Measures [Kitāb al-Maqāyīs] which was composed by Clavius the Frank [Kalāwīūs al-Firinjī] in the Latin language, and my father, God have mercy on him, translated it into the [clear - mubīn?] Arabic language, possessor of virtuous talents including the perfection of acquired knowledge, Rustam called Mu‘tamad Khān, the son of Qubād, gatherer of proofs of knowledge, perceiving the secrets of the spoken and the tacit, given the name Diyānat Khān al-Ḥārithī al-Badakhshī, may God be fair with both of them and elevate them.  Signed: I, who am a feeble slave begging for the mercy of the One and the intercession of the Prophet, Mīrzā Muḥammad, may God cause him to attain eternal happiness”.

IO Isl 1308_8_720
Note by Muʻtamad Khān's son (IO Islamic 1308, f.1v)

This translation offers some fascinating possibilities – the first is the demonstration of how knowledge circulated in the early modern world.  Clavius’ work, which responded to and was inspired by Arabic mathematicians and scientists in Latin translation, here a generation after its publication is translated back into Arabic to be read, presumably by elites at the court of Aurangzeb, where the work’s translator and his son were courtiers.  This translation demonstrates the complexity of knowledge flows – that they were synchronic as well as diachronic, and also involved a process not just of translation, but of re-translation, re-interpretation and development as they travelled.  Furthermore, the inscriptions taken in tandem, one in English made by an East India official, the other in Arabic by a Mughal courtier, open the possibility that already in Aurangzeb’s reign, Mughal elites travelled to Europe perhaps to study.  In the case of Mu‘tamid Khan, the translator of this text, he mastered the technical idiom of geometry and mathematics in Latin, and then translated it into an equally complex scholarly language, Arabic.  Not an uncommon intellectual feat at the Mughal court, this process of scientific translation remains to be studied in depth. It is also possible that the presence of the Jesuits at Goa had an influence on the production of this translation, but firm evidence remains to be found.


Nur Sobers-Khan, Asian and African Studies

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Further reading:
Ali, Athar M.  The Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb. Bombay, 1966, which is also available in Urdu: Aurangzeb ke ‘ahd men mughal umarā, translated by Amīn al-Dīn. Dehli, 1985
Knobloch, Eberhard. “La connaissance des mathématiques arabes par Clavius”, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 12/ 2 (2002), 257-84
Lattis, James M.  Between Copernicus and Galileo: Christoph Clavius and the Collapse of Ptolemaic Cosmology. Chicago and London, 1994

07 February 2013

Mughal India: A Study Day

Saturday 9 March 2013, 10.00 – 17.00

Conference Centre, British Library

£25/ £15 concessions

Book now

Legendary patrons of the arts and science, the Mughal emperors are remembered through their rich cultural heritage including exquisite paintings and manuscripts, jeweled ornaments and architectural landmarks such as the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in Delhi.

This study day features presentations and discussions by noted scholars and art historians.  Entry to the exhibition is included in the price.

(There will be the option to exchange your ticket to view the exhibition on an alternative date.)

Chaired by
Dr. Malini Roy (Visual Arts Curator, British Library) and
Ursula Sims-Williams (Lead Curator, Persian Languages, British Library)

10.00 - 10.30    Registration

10.30 - 10.40    Introduction

10.40 - 11.20    The Wooden Audience Hall of Shah Jahan:
                        A Reconstruction from Texts, Images and Real Architecture

                        Professor Ebba Koch
                        (Institute of Art History, University of Vienna)

11.20 - 12.00    A Re-interpretation of the Dara Shikoh Album
                        J.P. Losty (British Library, Retired)

12.00 - 12.40    Flowers in Mughal Art
                        Susan Stronge (Victoria and Albert Museum)

12.40 - 13.00    Discussion

13.00 - 14.00    Lunch Break

14.00 - 14.40    Reading the History of Yogis through Mughal Painting
                        Dr James Mallinson (Independent Scholar)

14.40 - 15.20    Mughal Literature: Private and Public, Sacred and Profane
                        Professor Sunil Sharma (Boston University)

15.20 - 16.00    Discussion

16.00 - 17.00    Visit Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire (optional)

Tea and coffee will be served during registration.

  Add Or 3129 f.20_2

Portrait of Nadira Banu Begum, attributed to Balchand, 1631-2
From the Dara Shikoh Album, British Library, Add.Or.3129, folio 20

06 February 2013

From Mongols to Mughals

A few weeks ago we wrote about the Timurid ancestry of the Mughals while referring briefly to the emperor Babur’s maternal ancestor, Genghis Khan (in fact ‘Mughal’ itself is derived from the word Mongol). In addition to the copy of Muʻizz al ansāb described there (Or.14306), the British Library is fortunate enough to have a second one, acquired in the late 19th century (Or. 467), of which the first part is dedicated to the Mongols’ ancestors. Although the work was not composed during the rule of the Chingizid Ilkhanid dynasty of Iran (1260-1335), but under the Timurids (1370–1526), the information provided by this source is of major importance for the Chingizid period. Most of the genealogical data is based on previous works written by the Ilkhanid vizier Rashīd al-Dīn (d. 1317), such as the famous Jami‘ al-tavārīkh or the Shu‘ab-i Panjgānah. The fact that Rashīd al-Dīn had unprecedented access to the Mongol court and personally asked the Mongol royal family about its past, makes of this work one of the most interesting sources of information on Mongol genealogy available today.

Chaghatai Khan_720

 noc An imaginative portrayal of Chaghatai Khan (d. 1242) painted in the 18th century. Chaghatai was Genghis Khan's son and the founder of the line of Mongol rulers of Central Asia. The Chaghatai language and Chaghatai Turks take their names from him (Or.467)

The British Library copy was probably made in India during the 18th century, but unfortunately lacks some folios at the beginning of the description of Timur’s genealogy. However, unlike other copies, it contains illustrations of the rulers from the very beginning - including images of the Mongols’ mythical ancestors. These are entirely anachronistic, but despite their historical inaccuracy, are valuable representations of how a 19th century Indo-Muslim viewed the past, portraying a characteristic Moghul amalgamation of Turco-Mongol and Muslim heritage.


 noc The mythical heroine Alan Qo’a, who, impregnated by a ray of divine light, gave birth to the Mughals' ancestors. Abu’l-Fazl, Akbar’s official biographer, devotes a whole chapter to her, describing the day of her conception as “the beginning of the manifestation of his Majesty, the king of kings, who after passing through divers stages was revealed to the world from the holy womb of her Majesty Miryam-makānī for the accomplishment of things visible and invisible.” (Akbarnamah, vol 1)

An important feature of this copy is the attention given to the representation of Genghis Khan’s descendants – i.e. Qaidu Khan, Qabul Khan, etc.; his sons Jochi (d. 1227), Chaghatai (d. 1242), Ogedei (d. 1241) and Tolui (d. 1232) and their families. An enthralling aspect of the work are the tables with data on the wives, concubines and government officials which accompany each one. Some are illustrated and include short descriptions on their tribal origin and offspring, as well as on their actions in government.

There is a vast potential for research to be centred on this material, notwithstanding the work that has been done so far. For example, a comprehensive comparison between the different manuscripts of the Mu'izz al-ansāb is wanting, while most of the information regarding women and officials mentioned in the work is still waiting to be analysed. What is clear, however, is that this manuscript represents a sense of continuity perceived by all these 'different' dynasties that ruled first Central Asia and later India for over 600 years. A work which describes the Chingizid Mongols’ progeniture, authored by an anonymous Timurid and copied in Mughal India offers an insightful instance of the Mughals conception of their origin and past.

Bruno De Nicola, University of St. Andrews

Further reading

Sholeh A Quinn, “The Mu‘izz al-Ansāb and the Shu‘ab-i Panjgānah as Sources for the Chaghatayid Period of History: A Comparative Analysis,” Central Asiatic Journal, 33 (1990), pp. 229-53.
John E Woods, “Timur's Genealogy,” in Intellectual studies on Islam : essays written in honor of Martin B. Dickson, edited by M.M. Mazzaoui and V.B. Moreen. Salt Lake City, Utah: U. of Utah Press, c1990, pp. 85-125.



01 February 2013

Princess Jahanara’s biography of a Sufi saint

One of the most exciting discoveries made while researching exhibits to be included in Mughal India was an autograph copy of the Mughal Princess Jahanara’s Muʼnis al-arvāḥ (‘The Confidant of Spirits’), a biography of the famous Sufi saint Muʻin al-Din Chishti.

Jahanara_720Portrait of a young lady, recentlyidentified as Jahanara and attributed to the painter Lalchand c. 1631-3 (Losty and Roy, p. 132). One of two portraits of the same lady occurring in an album presented in 1051 (1641/42) by Prince Dara Shikoh to his wife Nadira Banu Begum (Add.Or.3129, f. 25v). Images online

Jahanara Begum (1614-81) was the eldest daughter of the emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58). Like her brother Dara Shikoh, the heir to the throne, she was profoundly spiritual, and they were initiated together into the Qadiriya order of Sufiism. At the same time Jahanara was an influential political figure, receiving the title Sahibat al-Zaman (‘Mistress of the Age’) after her mother Mumtaz Mahal’s death in 1631. In 1644 she was given the port of Surat, and she also owned her own ship, the Sahibi, which transported cargo and pilgrims between Surat and Mecca. Revenues from maritime trade made her extremely wealthy. Jahanara paid for the construction of the famous Jamiʻ Masjid in Agra, completed in 1648, and also commissioned a huge mosque and religious complex dedicated to her spiritual teacher Mulla Shah in Srinagar in 1650.

019PHO000001003U00512000[SVC2]_720The Jamiʻ Masjid, Agra, built for Jahanara and completed in 1648. Photographed by W. Caney in the 1880s for the Archaeological Survey of India (Photo 1003/(512)

   Throughout her life she remained devoted to her father and cared for him after his imprisonment in 1658 until his death eight years later. However she was also the subject of scurrilous rumours, no doubt arising from jealousy. The French physician François Bernier, who was employed at court for several years from 1659, describes how Shah Jahan, realising that a suitor was hiding in Jahanara’s bath-tub, ordered the cauldron to be lit underneath and only left the room when he was sure the victim was dead. On another occasion he is reputed to have poisoned Jahanara’s steward who had been suggested as a potential husband.

Colophon of Muʼnis al-arvāḥ copied by Jahanara who signs herself “Jahanara, a speck of dust at the feet of the sages of Chisht” (Or. 5637, ff. 122-23)

Jahanara’s writings include two Sufi works: the Ṣāḥibīyah, a biography of her teacher Mulla Shah (d. 1661— a possible autograph of Mulla Shah's is also included in the exhibition) and this work, primarily about Muʻin al-Din Chishti (1135–1229) who introduced the Chishti order of Sufism into India. Called the Mu’nis al-arvāḥ (a play on the title of one of Muʻin al-Din Chishti’s own works, the Anīs al-arvāḥ), she completed it on 27 Ram. 1049 (21 Jan 1640). She compiled it from a number of sources (including her brother Dara Shikoh’s own treatise Safīnat al-awliyā), proudly boasting a knowledge superior to her father’s:

It should be known to everyone that the guiding master Khvaja Mu‘inuddin Muhammad [Chishti] (may almighty God protect his secret) was a sayyid, and without doubt was among the offspring of the prophet. There is no disputing this. When the ruler of the age… Shah Jahan (may God preserve his realm), my glorious father, did not have information about the origins of the guiding master, he investigated the matter. I told him repeatedly that the master was a sayyid but he did not believe me until one day he was reading the Akbarnama and his auspicious eyes fell on the part of the where Shaikh Abu al-Fazl describes briefly the reality of the guiding master being a sayyid. From that day on this fact that was clearer than the sun was revealed to the king, shadow of God.

(Mu’nis al-arvāḥ, unpublished translation courtesy of Sunil Sharma)

The suggestion that this manuscript might have been copied by Jahanara herself was first mentioned by William Irvine in a footnote on p. 423 of the 4th volume of his translation of  N. Manucci’s Storia do Mogor (London: Murray, 1907-8), where he writes “I have since given to the British Museum what I believe to be a holograph exemplar.” I read this quite by chance and immediately tried to locate the volume which was only summarily listed in G.M. Meredith-Owens Handlist of Persian manuscripts 1895-1966 (London: British Museum, 1968). Besides the colophon saying that it was copied by Jahanara, this copy ends differently from others (The British Library has two: Or.250 and Add.16733). Comparison with known examples of Jahanara’s handwriting also suggested that it was in fact genuine. 


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

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Further reading

A. Bokhari, “Imperial Transgressions and Spiritual Investitures: A Begam’s ‘Ascension’ in Seventeenth Century Mughal India”, Journal of Persianate Studies 4 (2011), pp. 86-108
F. Bernier,  Travels in the Mogul Empire, A.D. 1656-1668; translated and annotated by A. Constable. 2nd revised. ed. by V.A. Smith. Oxford: OUP, 1916
J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire. London: British Library, 2012