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Life and Art in the Mughal Court

Turban ornament, India or Pakistan, early 18th century, set with rubies, emeralds, pale beryls and diamonds. Museum no. IM.240-1923

Turban ornament, India or Pakistan, early 18th century, set with rubies, emeralds, pale beryls and diamonds. Museum no. IM.240-1923

Most of the objects and paintings on display in the V&A's South Asia gallery are not concerned with the bare facts of history but with the way people lived at the Mughal court. These works of art, made for courtly patrons, have survived because they were highly prized and kept carefully over many years.

Paintings tell us something of what the interiors of Mughal buildings looked like. They were usually of either pink sandstone or, especially in Shah Jahan's reign, white marble. Open pillared halls were preferred to enclosed rooms so that as much air as possible could circulate in the hot weather. Textile hangings and screens decorated the palace walls, providing privacy within the open halls and shade or warmth in the hot or cool seasons. The hangings often had designs on them similar to those of the stone walls themselves: a large flowering plant was the most popular motif in the seventeenth century, and can be found on many objects, from large textiles to exquisite jade or silver cups.

Furnishings inside the palace were very different to European furniture. Indians prefer to sit on the floor rather than on chairs, and the floor was usually covered with a thin embroidered floorspread in summer, or a pile carpet in winter.

Cushions would also be provided to lean against, and another cloth spread on the floor at mealtimes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many Indian rulers started to imitate European fashions and took to sitting on European-style chairs, but this was not found at the Mughal court except in the case of thrones.

Costume is a fascinating theme to explore, and styles can be traced through the paintings and jewellery on show, as well as the actual garments. A basic difference between Mughal and European dress is that men wore long gowns, as well as decorated sashes, pearl necklaces and jewelled turban ornaments. Relatively few women are shown in paintings because of the Muslim tradition of keeping women apart from public life, but their costume of a long, often transparent, gown worn over tight trousers is remarkably similar to the men's.

Floorspread, India, 18th Century. Museum no. IS.34-1985

Floorspread, India, 18th Century, cotton embroidered with silk, width 138 cm x height 184 cm. Museum no. IS.34-1985

Textiles, in the form of sumptuous garments or lengths of fine cloth, played a very important role at the court as gifts from the emperor to his nobles and vice versa. Velvets, printed cottons and embroideries were also used in the portable tents and furnishings used by the emperor and his retinue when on the move, either on a military campaign or a hunting expedition.

This moveable court was almost as luxurious as the permanent one, with flowered cloth taking the place of inlaid marble walls.Fine weapons were equally highly prized, and dagger-hilts could be carved in jade, encrusted with jewels, or inlaid with gold floral patterns.

Domestic items such as bottles, wine cups, ewers and mirrors were all produced in luxury materials like jade, silver or delicately painted glass.

One of the most stunning objects in the Treasury section is a beautiful 16th century chased gold spoon (below) inlaid with rubies, emeralds and diamonds, made for the emperor Akbar.

Gold spoon, late 16th century-early 17th century. Museum no. IS.34-1925

Ceremonial spoon (front view), Mughal India, 16th century, chased gold inlaid with rubies, emeralds and diamonds. Museum no. IM.173-1910

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