Asian and African studies blog

7 posts from April 2013

29 April 2013

A farewell to the Mughals

British Library's exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire closed on 2 April 2013. The last few days of the exhibition saw a record number of visitors!

Since opening in November 2012, we have been surprised by the overwhelming response from the press and social media. We never anticipated being interviewed by Mark Lawson on Radio 4's Front Row, Sean Rafferty on Radio 3's In Tune, or even GQ India in their November 2012 issue. Other media highlights include the BBC History slide show and video coverage of the Delhi panorama in the Telegraph.

If you missed the exhibition, here are a few photographs of the show

Entrance to the exhibition, by John Falconer Entrance to the exhibition
John Falconer

The beautiful geometric designs for the jali screens were designed by our exhibition design team - Plaid designs and Bibliotheque Designs.

Introducing the Mughal Empire, by John FalconerIntroducing the Mughal Empire
John Falconer

The introduction to the exhibition featured an animated map - which documented the geographic expansion and contraction of the empire from 1526-1858.

Ruler's Gallery, by John FalconerRuler's Gallery
John Falconer

The Ruler's Gallery showcased 15 major Mughal emperors, starting with the founder of the empire Babur (ruled 1530-30) and ending with the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah II (ruled 1837-58). In the centre, is the fantastic jade terrapin, which was on loan from the British Museum.

Life in Mughal India, by John Falconer Life in Mughal India
John Falconer

This section introduced the empire and its administration, foreign and international relations, as well as court life. Highlights in this section included the 17th-century Mughal cavalryman (on loan from the Royal Armouries in Leeds), the journal of Sir Thomas Roe, as well as an instructional poem for pigeon fanciers.

Art of Painting, by John FalconerThe Art of Painting
John Falconer

A chronological overview of the Mughal tradition of painting, starting with the establishment of the Mughal artistic studio charged with producing illustrated manuscripts and paintings. Highlights of the section include an imperial copy of the Khamsa of Nizami produced for the Emperor Akbar in 1595-96, a copy of the Divan of Hafiz belonging to Emperor Jahangir, as well portraits of princes and princesses and other notable officials. 

Literature, by John FalconerLiterature
John Falconer

Persian was the main language of culture and administration. Persian literature so flourished in the subcontinent that at times more literary works were produced there than in Iran. This section of the exhibition was devoted to exploring the diversity of languages used at the court as well as introducing notable poets and authors who wrote in Hindi, Urdu and Persian. Here we featured calligraphy by the Mughal emperor Bahahdur Shah 'Zafar' who was an influential poet and calligrapher. 

Science and Medicine, by John FalconerScience and Medicine
John Falconer

Under Mughal patronage the sciences were actively cultivated and in many fields a fusion of Indian and Islamic scientific traditions yielded significant advances. In researching scientific manuscripts of the period, we discovered the transfer of knowledge from East to West.

Decline of the Empire, by John FalconerDecline of the Empire
John Falconer

By 1805, the empire had drastically reduced in size. Brutal wars of succession, compounded with the sacking of Delhi by Nadir Shah in 1739, were contributing factors. In the last decades of Mughal rule, the political authority of the emperor was restricted; the British controlled the surrounding territories. In 1858, after the failed Uprising against the East India Company, the Mughal dynasty finally came to an end. In this photograph, you can see the 5-metre long panorama of Delhi, painted by the artist Mazhar Ali Khan in 1846.

Lead Curator - Malini Roy - in the gallery after all the exhibits were removed and the towers came down! By Janet Benoy 
Lead Curator - Malini Roy - in the gallery after all the exhibits were removed and the towers came down! 
Janet Benoy 

The British Library’s Mughal India exhibition was the first to document the entire period, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, through more than 200 exquisite objects. The majority of the exhibits were drawn from the British Library's own collection. For further information, please see:

Accompanying publication: by J.P. Losty and Malini Roy Over 150 colour illustrations | 256 pages | Paperback £19.95 | Hardback £30.00

British Library's Facebook albums (you do not need a Facebook account to see them).

Malini Roy, Lead Curator - Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire


23 April 2013

What were the Mughals' favourite books?

We are often asked what the Mughals' favourite books were. Unfortunately there is no complete record of the contents of the Mughal Library, but John Seyller’s comprehensive survey in 1997 of manuscripts containing Mughal valuations and inscriptions (see below) gives a fairly good indication. A clear favourite was the Khamsah (‘Five Poems’) written in Persian by Niẓāmī ( 1202). Other very popular works were the Gulistān (‘Rose Garden’) and Būstān (‘Scented Garden’) by the well-known Persian poet Saʻdī (d. 1291/92), the poems of Jāmī (d. 1492) and, of course, the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ of Shiraz ( 1389). The British Library collections suggest similar conclusions, with several fine examples of Mughal copies of these works.

The Khamsah of Niẓāmī

 In a recent post (‘A Jewel in the Crown’) I wrote about what was probably the most highly regarded imperial copy of  Niẓāmī ’s Khamsah (‘Five Poems’). However an equally beautiful example is Or.12208,  which was copied for Akbar between 1593 and 1595 by ʻAbd al-Raḥīm, one of the most celebrated calligraphers of his day. It originally contained 42 illustrated folios (2 double-page illustrations), 5 of which are now in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; the remaining 37 are still intact in the manuscript.  Altogether 22 different artists contributed to this work, all of whom were Hindu painters except for ʻAbd al-Ṣamad who came to India from Iran with the Emperor Humayun in 1555.

Or.12208_f72r_720Khusraw defeats Bahrām Chūbīn, from Khusraw u Shīrīn in Niẓāmī ’s Khamsah. Illustrated by Manohar (fl c. 1580–1620) (Or.12208, f. 72r)  noc

The Dīvān of Ḥāfi

 Examples of two elegant copies of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ (Or.14139 and Or.7573) were given in our most recent post. A third (Grenville XLI) probably dates from between 1600 and 1605. Folio 3r contains a note, possibly by Jahangir, saying that the work was completed at Allahabad where he held court as Prince Salim. Another note, by Shah Jahan, records that it entered his library on the day of his accession on 25 Bahman [corresponding to 8 Jum. II] 1037 (14 February 1628, a similar note occurs in Or.6810 which you can see here).

Grenville XLI_f14_720The Prophet Sulayman with attendant jinns and angels, surrounded by birds and animals (Grenville XLI, f.14r)  noc

Saʻdī’s Gulistān and Būstān


The opening of Sadi’s Gulistān (‘Rose Garden’), copied by Mīr ʻAlī Ḥusaynī (Or.5302 noc


This copy of the Gulistān was copied in 975 (1567/68) by the calligrapher Mīr ʻAlī Ḥusaynī who describes himself in the colophon as a royal scribe (al-kātib al-sulṭānī) at the capital (dār al-khilāfah), Bukhara (Uzbekistan). Assuming that this is the genuine work of the famous master Mīr ʻAlī, it is the latest dated example of his work by 20 years (Thackston, pp. 154-55). Between 1531 and 1547/48 Mīr ʻAlī copied several notable manuscripts in Bukhara which subsequently passed into Mughal ownership (see John Seyller’s article below), including another Gulistān, which was copied for Sulṭān ʻAbd al-ʻAzīz Bahādur Khān (ruled 1540-1549). The miniatures in the British Library Gulistān include six Bukhara-style paintings which were commissioned apparently at Akbar's request (see dedicational inscriptions on ff. 30r and 91r). Four of these are ascribed to the artist Shaykhm Muzahhib — possibly Shaykhm, son of Mullā Yūsuf al-Haravī, one of the painters of Rawẓat al-Muḥibbīn, also partially copied by Mīr ʻAlī (see Seyller below, p. 339). The manuscript was 'improved' again in Jahangir's reign when seven more paintings were added, probably between 1605 and 1609.

Or5302_f50rFrom Saʻdī’s Gulistān. The king visits the dervish, seated outside his house in a traditional chārbāgh garden, having abandoned his former way of life as a result of being introduced to worldly pleasures. Illustration by an unnamed artist, possibly Sur Das Gujarati (see Losty and Roy, p. 94), which has been added to the manuscript during Jahangir’s reign (Or.5302, f. 50r)  

The Būstān Add.27262, illustrated below, is dated 26 Rab. I 1039 (13 Nov. 1629) at Agra and was copied by one of Shah Jahan’s court poets, Ḥakīm Rukn al-Dīn Masʻūd called Ḥakīm Ruknā and Masīḥ (d. 1647 or 1655/56 — according to different sources). Ḥakīm Ruknā, who was also a physician, emigrated to Akbar’s court in 1597/98 having previously been in the service of the Safavid ruler Shah ʻAbbas I (r. 1588 to 1629).


Add27262 f.129_720From Saʻdī’s Būstān. Illustration by an unnamed artist depicting a story illustrating the advantages of silence: an old man interferes and breaks up a mixed-race courtship, only to be severely reprimanded by the girl afterwards (Add.27262, f. 129r.)   noc

Saʻdi’s verses were also often used as examples of calligraphy. Examples by the last Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar’ (r. 1837-1857) and his eldest son Mirza Darabakht (1790–1849) can be seen in an earlier post ‘A 19th century album of imperial calligraphy’. 

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

Follow us on Twitter: @BLAsia_Africa 

Further reading

John Seyller, “The Inspection and Valuation of Manuscripts in the Imperial Mughal library”, Artibus Asiae 57 no 3/4 (1997), pp. 243-349
Barbara Brend, The Emperor Akbar’s Khamsa of Niẓāmī. London: British Library, 1995
Wheeler Thackston, “Calligraphy in the Albums”, in E. Wright, Muraqqaʻ: Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library Dublin (Alexandria, Va.: Art Services International, 2008), pp. 153-63
J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire. London: British Library, 2012
J.P. Losty, The Art of the Book in India. London: British Library, 1982


18 April 2013

A rare commentary on the Divan of Hafiz

Evidence of the Mughal emperors’ admiration for the Persian lyric poet Ḥāfiẓ of Shiraz (d. 1389) is to be found in several elegant copies of his Dīvān or collected poems, two of which (Or.14139 and Or.7573, see below) featured in the exhibition ‘Mughal India’ [postscript: and are now digitised, follow links below].

The initial page of a Mughal imperial copy of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ which, according to a note by Shah Jahan, was copied by the master calligrapher Sulṭān ʻAlī Mashhadī. Probably dating from the end of the 15th century, the copy was remargined for Jahangir ca.1605. At the head of the page is Awrangzeb’s personal seal (Or.14139, f. 1v noc


There exist several commentaries on his Dīvān. Some provide little more than literal definitions of difficult and/or uncommon words and expressions. Others are more profound, and one such was composed for Shah Jahan (ruled 1627-1658). The British Library is fortunate enough to have acquired, five years ago, a manuscript (Or.16039) of this rare text, formerly in the library of the late C.S. Mundy, a British Turcologist.

Decorations added for Jahangir to his pocket sized copy of Hafiz’s Dīvān (Or.7573, f.246v)  

Baḥr al-firāsat al-lāfiẓ fī sharḥ Dīvān-i Ḥāfiẓ (‘The Speaking Sea of Insight, in explication of the Collected Poems of Hafiz’) is concerned with the inner meanings of some of the great mystical poet’s more esoteric verses. The author, ʻAbd Allāh Khvīshakī Chishtī, used the penname ʻUbaydī. As his name implies, he was a member of the Chishti Sufi Order, which to this day remains a major spiritual force in the Subcontinent. Verses in praise of Shah Jahan occur in the middle of the author’s preface (folios 2v-3v). In conformity with normal convention, the bayts or couplets are arranged and explained in alphabetical order of the rhyming letters.

Only two other manuscripts of this work are recorded, both being 19th century copies preserved at the Majlis-i Shūrā-yi Millī (National Assembly) Library in Tehran. The British Library manuscript is probably early 18th century and comprises 227 folios but is incomplete: it breaks off about two-thirds of the way through, and lacks the index found in the Tehran volumes.

A pair of kingfishers added for Jahangir (Or.7573, f. 92r   noc

By way of illustrating the content and flavour of ʻUbaydī’s work, here is a small section from the commentary on the famous first ghazal in the Dīvān, which begins with a hemistich in Arabic: Alā yā ayyuhā l-sāqī adir kaʼsan va navilhā / kih ʻishq āsān namūd avval valī uftād mushkilhā (‘Cupbearer, pass a goblet round and fill it up / for love at first seemed easy, but [now] come the problems’)

The beginning of ʻUbaydī's commentary on the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ (Or.16039, folio 4v)   noc


Alā: be aware and knowing.  [yā ayyuhā l-sāqī] you who cause everyone to drink [spiritual] wine, [adir kaʼsan] pass around a goblet, [va navilhā] drink and give to drink. It is vital to be aware that certain words - such as sāqī (‘cupbearer’), nāfa (‘musk’), ṭurra (‘tresses’), jaʻd (‘lock of hair’), and so on - which occur in the parlance of the Sufis are to be interpreted according to [one’s own spiritual] standing; one cannot restrict them to a single meaning. As Mawlānā Maḥmūd [Shabistarī, renowned Iranian metaphysician and poet, d. ca. 1320], may God sanctify his spirit, puts it in his Gulshan-i rāz (‘The Flower Garden of Mystic Secrets’):

“The world of inner meanings is boundless.
How could its expressions be thought limited?
How could literal interpretations convey
secrets that spring from mystic tasting (zawq)?”

Sāqī (‘cupbearer’), then, alludes to the spiritual guide (murshid). It also refers the Divine outpouring [of mystical knowledge] and [on a higher level again] to the very Divine Essence (Zāt) Itself. As Jamālī [of Delhi, d. 1535, a much-travelled Sufi sheikh of the Suhravardī order, poet, and companion of the first Mughal emperor Bābur] puts it in Mir’āt al-maʻānī (‘The Mirror of Meanings’):

“Who is the Cupbearer here? The Essential Being Himself,
Who pours wine in the mouths of contingent things.”

It is stated in the Risāla-ʼi Iṣṭilāḥāt (‘Treatise on [Sufi] Terminology’ [the writer does not specify which of these he is citing]) that there are sāqīs of different kinds. The one who bestows wine without any intermediary is the one of whom [God] the Exalted says [in the Qur’ān]: “And their Lord gives them pure [and purifying: ṭahūr] wine to drink.” The wine in question represents love (maḥabbat): and ‘pure wine’ means pure, unalloyed love in which none besides [God Himself] has any share. It is devoid of any impurity in the form of love for aught but God, and it purifies one of base traits of character such as greed, lust, hypocrisy, ostentation, desire for status, and claiming to be astute (kiyāsat). The cupbearers who pour wine as intermediaries are the Prophets; the saints; the greatest religious scholars; and, from among the angels, the cherubim (karūbiyān), the sanctified (rūḥāniyān), and the foremost of those in proximity [to the Divine Presence].

More bird decorations (Or.7573, f.278r)    noc

The commentary on the first couplet (bayt) of Hāfiẓ’s famous poem continues over four more pages of the manuscript. The brief excerpt translated illustrates some of the ways in which this controversial poet has been interpreted by authors who espoused the mystical interpretation. Equally interesting, and more intellectually rigorous, are the commentaries on Ḥāfiẓ by Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī (d. 1502), a major philosopher and metaphysician who flourished in Shiraz a few decades after him. Interested readers are referred to Carl Ernst’s article (see below).



Muhammad Isa Waley, Asian and African Studies

Follow us on twitter: @BLAsia_Africa 

Further reading

Ḥāfiẓ, 14th century. Dīvān. (Numerous Persian editions)

The green sea of heaven: fifty ghazals from the Díwán of Ḥáfiẓ; translated by Elizabeth T. Gray. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1995

Jamālī, Ḥāmid ibn Fażl Allāh, The Mirror of Meanings = Mirʼāt al-Maʻānī: a Parallel English-Persian Text; edited by Naṣr Allāh Pūrjavādī, translated by A. A. Seyed-Gohrab. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2002

Hafiz and the Religion of Love in Classical Persian Poetry, edited by Leonard Lewisohn. London: I.B. Tauris in association with Iran Heritage Foundation, 2010

Shabistarī, Maḥmūd ibn ʻAbd al-Karīm, Garden of Mystery: The Gulshan-i Rāz of Mahmud Shabistari; translated by Robert Darr. Cambridge: Archetype, 2007

Carl Ernst, “Jalāl al-Dīn Davānī’s interpretation of Ḥāfiẓ”, Ḥāfiẓ and the Religion of Love, pp. 197-210



12 April 2013

Two 15th century Timurid masterpieces to be digitised

The Barakat Trust has generously awarded the British Library a grant to digitise two of our most treasured Persian manuscripts, Or.6810 and Add.25900, both copies of the Khamsah (‘Five Poems’) by the twelfth century poet Nizami. Both works include paintings by the master-painter of Herat, Bihzad (died 1535/36), who worked at the courts of the Timurid Husayn Bayqara (ruled 1469-1506) and the Safavid Shah Tahmasp (ruled 1524-1576).

Iskandar with the seven sages, dated AH 900 (1495/95), (Or.6810, f. 214r) 
Iskandar with the seven sages, dated AH 900 (1495/95), (Or.6810, f. 214r)   noc

Or.6810 dates from around 1494/95 and was written for Amir ʻAli Farsi Barlas, an amir of the Timurid Sultan Husayn Bayqara. It contains one double page and 20 single miniatures by Bihzad and other artists, and was one of the most precious manuscripts in the Mughal imperial library (see my recent post ‘A jewel in the crown’). It was still in the royal collection at the beginning of the 18th century and was probably taken as loot during the political upheaval which followed Nadir Shah’s conquest and the sack of Delhi in 1739. In December 1782 it was purchased by the collector Richard Johnson working for the East India Company in Lucknow, and was ultimately acquired by the British Museum in 1908.

Iskandar visits the wise man in the cave (Or.6810, f. 273r) Iskandar visits the wise man in the cave (Or.6810, f. 273r)   noc

Add.25900 was copied in 846 (1442) and contains 19 miniatures which were added after it was completed. One is contemporary, dating from 846 (1442), while 14, like those of Or.6810, date from Husayn Bayqara’s reign — f.77v is dated 898 (1492/93). Three of these are ascribed to Bihzad. The final four miniatures are Safavid Tabriz style paintings of around 1535-40. Before being acquired by the British Museum, the manuscript belonged to the Indologist James Robert Ballantyne (1813-1864), Librarian of the India Office Library from 1861 to 1864, who had acquired it in November 1837.


Battle between Iskandar and Dara, ascribed to Bihzad, from the Iskandarnāmah (Add.25900, f.231v)  

Battle between Iskandar and Dara, ascribed to Bihzad, from the Iskandarnāmah (Add.25900, f.231v)    noc 


When digitised these two manuscripts will be freely available to look on the British Library's digitised manuscripts page:

Follow us on Twitter to keep in touch with new developments: @BLAsia_Africa. 


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

07 April 2013

Jai Singh’s Observatories

In the preface to his Zīj-i jadīd-i Muḥammad Shāhī (‘Muhammad Shah's new tables’), which I mentioned in my previous post, Maharaja Jai Singh (1688-1743) explained that the contemporary astronomical tables, based on the Zīj-i Ulugh Beg, the Zīj-i Khāqānī, the explanations written by Mulla Chand in Akbar's reign, and by Mulla Farid in the reign of Shahjahan, were none of them completely accurate. As a result he was commissioned by Muhammad Shah to collect new and more correct data. To achieve this, he wrote, he had astronomical instruments made at Delhi, at first similar to those in Samarkand and subsequently others, larger, which he designed himself. Altogether he built observatories in Delhi, Jaipur, Mathura, Benares, and Ujjain.

Jai Singh’s observatory at Delhi, built in 1724. Pencil drawing from a sketch dated 1826 by a British artist in Delhi (British Library WD 3537)  noc

The observatories in Delhi and Jaipur consist of a number of masonry instruments grouped together in enclosures, usually referred to as Jantar Mantar. These were to some extent inspired by instruments developed in Samarkand by Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), and doubtless Jai Singh hoped to see continued there further work of that kind. By far the most interesting of them is the large sextant enclosed in a chamber in which the sun’s light is admitted through small holes in a brass sheet. At noon the disk of the sun is projected, as in a pinhole camera, onto the scale of the sextant. Since a scale was inscribed on the sextant it was possible not only to examine the disk of the sun, but to determine in this way the true altitude of the sun on any day.

When I was in Jaipur in 1985 I photographed the image of the sun as it was projected on the sextant.

Photo_1Photo 1   ccownwork

In Photo 1, which shows the largest item there, I have added a label to show two small apertures which allow pinhole images of the sun. The photograph shows a pillar on one side holding up one end of the giant curved sundial; there is another on the opposite side.

Photo_2Photo 2    ccownwork

Photo 2 is of a model which shows the two apertures clearly; two small dots in the middle of the picture, immediately above the opened doorway.

Photo_5_720Photo 3  ccownwork

Photo 3 shows the interior of the large chamber, where one can see the two apertures made in metal plates.

Photo_4_720Photo 4   ccownwork

Photo 4 looks in the opposite direction inside the chamber. The large calibrated sextant scale is visible behind the man; there is another on the opposite wall.

Photo_3_720Photo 5   ccownwork

Photo 5 shows a close up of the scale. This is not the original calibration, since at some point it was cleaned up by an English engineer.

Photo_6_720Photo 6   ccownwork

Photo 6  shows the image of the sun on the scale at noon exactly; the calibration is just visible. This shows how it is possible to get a clear picture of the sun without looking at it directly, which can easily be studied. One can measure the diameter of the disk and fix its altitude over the horizon. This technique goes back to earlier Arabic astronomy, and was of course not original with Jai Singh. I have not myself seen any records of observations made with this instrument except for those made by the Jesuit Father Boudier in Delhi in 1734 (see Mercier, pp. 164-7).

Raymond Mercier, University of Cambridge 



Further reading

R. Mercier, “The astronomical tables of Rajah Jai Singh Sawai”, Indian Journal of History of Science 19 (1984), pp. 143-71

04 April 2013

Jai Singh and European Astronomy

On display in the recent exhibition ‘Mughal India’ was Add.14373, a set of astronomical tables, the Zīj–i jadīd-i Muḥammad Shāhī (‘Muhammad Shah's new tables’), by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur (1688-1743), which arose largely as a translation of tables by the French astronomer Philippe de La Hire, taken from the 2nd edition of 1727 (see below Tabulae astronomicae). Jai Singh had developed a strong interest in mathematics and astronomy, and was commissioned by Muhammad Shah to collect data based on Islamic, Hindu and European knowledge. After learning what he could from locally available sources he sought the help of the Jesuit missionaries in his effort to get up to date.


Zīj–i jadīd-i Muḥammad Shāhī showing, upper left: table of inclination of Mars, corresponding to the right hand columns of Philippe de La Hire’s table 43, and upper right: second equation of Mars (Add.14373, f159v)
Zīj–i jadīd-i Muḥammad Shāhī showing, upper left: table of inclination of Mars, corresponding to the right hand columns of Philippe de La Hire’s table 43, and upper right: second equation of Mars (Add.14373, f159v)  



Table 43 of Philippe de La Hire’s tables (3rd edition, Paris, 1735)Table 43 of Philippe de La Hire’s tables (3rd edition, Paris, 1735) noc

A copy of de La Hire’s work is to be found still in the Library in the Palace in Jaipur and this has bound with it a few pages written in Latin in 1732 by a French visitor of the time, Joseph Dubois. It is clear that Dubois was very much acquainted with Jai Singh’s efforts. During a visit there in 1985 I made a copy of these notes with a translation which I later published (see below “Account...”,  p.157). There we learn that Jai Singh, 

on discovering the Almagest of Father P. [recte G.B.] Riccioli, saw as he had known previously, that there was a great discordance in his native tables, so that I had translated into the language of the Indians the Persian tables ordered by Shahjahan, formerly the Emperor of the whole of East India, which cost 100,000 rupees. Here he found a discordance of up to one degree. As a result a certain Father of the Society of Jesus, of the Portuguese nation, and Rector of the College in Agra of the same Empire, was sent by him (the Ruler) to seek an expert astronomer in Europe. The Father went and returned, and brought with him the tables which I have described, along with other mathematical aids, as a gift from the King of Portugal. A certain young man, educated by the Father in India, and born endowed with great ability, by name Petrus da Silva, also Portuguese, studied astronomy at Riet Clarissima with Father John Baptist Carbone, and came to the Ruler. The Ruler very happily ordered the tables to be transcribed into his script, and orderd all his astronomers to make calculations by them. Now he longs for someone to go to Paris and London to drink of astronomy at the source.

The Father who went to Portugal was the Jesuit Manuel Figueredo, accompanied by Pedro da Silva Leitão, a Portuguese man who had attained a privileged position at the court of Jai Singh.

Portrait of the Portuguese physician and astronomer Pedro da Silva by ʻAqlmand Khān (1920,0917,0.88.2) © Trustees of the British MuseumPortrait of the Portuguese physician and astronomer Pedro da Silva by ʻAqlmand Khān (1920,0917,0.88.2) © Trustees of the British Museum

There are in the Portuguese archives (Arquivo Português Oriental, and Assentos do Conselho do Estado) many references to both Figueredo and da Silva, and we have also a note about the grave in the Christian cemetery in Agra of Pedro da Silva (very likely the same man) showing that he died on 13 November 1791 (List of Inscriptions on Christian Tombs, p. 52).

In the Archives we read that in 1727:

Several days later, in the boats (pallas) from Damão, Father Manuel de Figueredo of the Society of Jesus, missionary to the Court of Agra and Ambassador from the Moghul to the King, arrived at Goa accompanied by two Moor Princes of that Emperor who later came with the Ambassador to Lisbon. The Jesuit Ambassador made his public entrance dressed as a Moghul, and received his first audience in the Royal Hall of the Fortress of Goa, which was conducted by the head or Governor of Goa, and by the Tanadar-mor, showing him all the civil and military honours customary on such occasions, and consigning the letter from the Prince ... (Assentos 5, p. 631)


The Viceroy obtained in 1737 Dec through a Portuguese physician named Pedro da Silva Letão, who assisted the King of Jaipur Rajah Sawai Jaisingh, in his Court,... (Assentos 5, p. 521)

We learn also of others who had come from Lisbon, unnamed, but described in these archives as ‘two mathematician fathers’, who arrived at the court of Jaipur.

While there were many astronomical researches in the earlier Islamic period such scientific activity had slowed down after about the year AD 1000. Important research, however, took place in Maraghah, Damascus and Samarkand in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. This constituted a legacy of Islamic work which was transmitted to both East and West. In the Mughal period, for example the work of Ulugh Beg of Samarkand was well-known, and parts of it (mainly the trigonometrical and geographical tables) were included in the Zīj of Jai Singh. The tables of sun, moon and planets, however, were taken over unaltered from de La Hire. By his time European astronomy had undergone quite revolutionary developments at the hands of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Halley, and of course Newton. All of that was entirely unknown not only in Mughal India but in the rest of the Islamic world. The introduction of de La Hire’s tables alone proved to be of little consequence in the development of Mughal astronomy.


Raymond Mercier, University of Cambridge


Further reading

R. Mercier, “The astronomical tables of Rajah Jai Singh Sawai”, Indian Journal of History of Science 19 (1984), pp. 143-71

— “Account by Joseph Dubois of astronomical work under Jai Singh Sawā’ī”, Indian Journal of History of Science 28 (1993), pp. 157-66

Philippe de La Hire,  Tabulae astronomicae... Secunda editio..., Parisiis: Apud Montalant, typographum & bibliopolam ... , 1727

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Arquivo Português Oriental (Nova Ediçâo), Tomo I, Vol. III, Parte V (1737-1739); edited by A.B. de Bragança Pereira. Bastora, India Portuguesa, 1940

List of Inscriptions on Christian Tombs and tablets of historical interest in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, E.A.H. Blunt, Allahabad, 1911



02 April 2013

Rare portrait of Ikhlas Khan, the African Prime Minister of Bijapur, acquired by the British Library

Among the most precious and sought after paintings from early modern India are those from the kingdoms of the Deccan.  The Deccan, primarily the upland plateau of peninsular India, was by the time of the Mughals divided into three principal kingdoms, Ahmadnagar, Bijapur and Golconda or Hyderabad (corresponding roughly to the modern states of western Maharashtra, northern Karnataka and northern Andhra Pradesh). The Mughals from the north, in their unremitting ambition to conquer the whole of India, assaulted these independent kingdoms throughout the 17th century. Ahmadnagar was largely incorporated into the Mughal empire by Akbar in 1600, and the remaining two were made to accept Mughal suzerainty by Shah Jahan in 1636. All three were ruled by Shia dynasties and looked to their co-religionists in Iran rather than to the Mughals who were Sunnis. They naturally attracted the ambitions of the strict Sunni Aurangzeb who finally incorporated them directly into the Mughal empire in 1686-87. Much of their distinctive paintings and manuscripts tradition was destroyed in these assaults, rendering what survives even more precious..

Deccani painting is distinguished by glowing and sumptuous colours and a sense of fantasy that remained largely aloof from the Mughal obsession with naturalism in the 17th century. Some of these paintings and manuscripts came into the British Library’s collections very early, including a group of important portraits and a magnificent Prince Hawking from Golconda bought with the Richard Johnson collection by the East India Company for its Library in 1807 that epitomises the sense of romantic fantasy found in Deccani painting.

British Library, A Prince Hawking, Golconda, 1610-20, Johnson Album 67, no. 3
British Library, A Prince Hawking, Golconda, 1610-20, Johnson Album 67, no. 3 noc

Since it is so distinct, it was not possible to exhibit this material in the Mughal India: Art Culture and Empire exhibition. A rare opportunity has just arisen to acquire an important painting that really enhances the collection.This is an equestrian portrait depicting Ikhlas Khan done in Golconda, 1670-80.

British Library, Ikhlas Khan on horseback, Golconda, 1670-80, Add.Or.5723
British Library, Ikhlas Khan on horseback, Golconda, 1670-80, Add.Or.5723 noc

Like all Indian miniatures, it is painted in opaque watercolours heightened with gold on paper; and its somewhat damaged condition has led to its earlier being pasted down on card. It has been in a UK private collection since 1931. Both subject and horse are distinctively Deccani, the costume of the former relating to 17th century royal portraits. The rider, clearly of African descent, wears a long white jama (gown), embroidered with flowering sprigs, and a small tight turban of gold brocade. Also of gold brocade are his long patka (waist sash) and dupatta (shawl) wound round his upper body in the Deccani manner. A black belt with gold studs holds the patka in place.  A curved sword or tulvar and a shield are hanging on his left side and a bow with a quiver of arrows on his right. He carries another straight sword (a khandan) slung over his shoulder. The stallions’s wide glinting eye, flaring nostrils, open mouth with lolling tongue, braided mane, tasselled trappings and powerful presence are all captured with great skill. The horse is rearing in the haste and excitement of a typical Indian procession, preceded and followed by attendants carrying standards, royal parasols, and swords as well, as one waving the royal scarf, a sign of royalty. In keeping with the Deccani reluctance to paint naturalistically, the horse and the attendants have no ground to stand on but float around in front of the plain background. Only the row of flowers across the bottom of the page indicates that this procession is happening in some kind of space.

All these accoutrements and the splendour of the gold trappings would appear to reinforce a royal identity for the subject. In spite of this, however, the subject bears no resemblance to any of the Deccani Sultans but a considerable one to the powerful minister Ikhlas Khan of Bijapur. Malik Raihan Habshi, a Habshi or African noble of Abyssinian descent in the service of the Bijapur sultans, was given the title Ikhlas Khan after he contrived the murder of the pro-Mughal minister Khawas Khan in 1635 at the time of Shah Jahan’s advance on the Deccan. He rose to the position of chief minister under Muhammad ‘Adil Shah (reg. 1627-56), so that he held all the reins of power in the Bijapur sultanate. He is known to us from several other paintings, in particular Sultan Muhammad ‘Adil Shah and Ikhlas Khan riding an Elephant, c. 1650. in the collection of Sir Howard Hodgkin, where Ikhlas Khan wears the same belt as here, and The Durbar of Sultan Muhammad ‘Adil Shah in the City Palace Museum, Jaipur, dated 1651. Another rather damaged half-length portrait is also in the Johnson Collection in the British Library showing Ikhlas Khan holding a gold and jewelled staff of office..


British Library, Ikhlas Khan, Bijapur, c. 1650, Johnson Album 26, no. 19
British Library, Ikhlas Khan, Bijapur, c. 1650, Johnson Album 26, no. 19 noc

Ikhlas Khan’s depiction in this new painting with the paraphernalia of a ruler would seem to be a reflection of his real power at court. Despite having to submit to Shah Jahan in 1636, Bijapur under his leadership was then free to expand further to the south into Hindu territory in southern Karnataka. His death date does not seem to be recorded.  This portrait does not, however, come from Bijapur but from its neighbour and rival to the east, Golconda or Hyderabad. The last Sultan of Golconda, Abu’l Hasan, had spent much of his life in Bijapur territory before being raised to the Golconda throne in 1672. Thereafter Bijapuri influence can be detected in Golconda painting, which had hitherto largely been under Iranian influence in its painting style. Perhaps the idea of Deccani resistance to Mughal aggression and to the encroaching power of Aurangzeb was the catalyst for the production of this posthumous portrait of a heroic Deccani leader.

Ironically the type of a portrait on a rearing horse had been borrowed from the Mughals, as in the magnificent Aurangzeb on a Rearing Horse currently in the Mughal India exhibition.

British Library, Aurangzeb on a Rearing Horse, Mughal c. 1660-70, Johnson Album 3, no. 4

British Library, Aurangzeb on a Rearing Horse, Mughal c. 1660-70, Johnson Album 3, no. 4 noc

Africans (Abyssinians or Habshis) from the east coast were known at the various Indian courts since at least the 13th century and several reached high positions as ministers at Delhi and in Bengal. In the 16th century they began to become much more prevalent in the Deccani kingdoms and to assume real power on a regular basis either as generals or ministers. They type is best represented by Malik ‘Ambar, the heroic defender of Ahmadnagar against the aggression of the Mughals in the early 17th century.

J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts (retired) ccownwork


Further Reading:
Alderman, J.R., “Paintings of Africans in the Deccan” in Robbins and McLeod 2006. 
Robbins, K.X. & McLeod, J., African Elites in India, Mapin, Ahmedabad, 2006
Zebrowski, M., Deccani Painting, Sotheby Publications, University of California Press, London and Los Angeles, 1983