The arts of the Mughal Empire

The great age of Mughal art lasted from about 1580 to 1650 and spanned the reigns of three emperors: Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. Hindu and Muslim artists and craftsmen from the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent worked with Iranian masters in the masculine environment of the royal workshops. Their very different traditions were combined to produce a radically new, and rapidly evolving style of art for the court. 

The Mughal dynasty was founded in 1526 when Babur, a Central Asian Muslim prince, followed the example of his ancestor Timur (d.1405) and invaded the land he knew as Hindustan (the Indian subcontinent). He seized the Delhi Sultanate from its ruler, Ibrahim Lodi, and laid the foundations of what would become one of the world's great empires. Through his mother's line, Babur was also descended from the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan (about 1162 – 1227), and the dynasty would become known by the Persian word for Mongol.

Bright painting of six Mughal figures underneath a red canopy
Timur handing the crown to Babur in the presence of Humayun, opaque watercolour on gold paper, by Govardhan, about 1628, Mughal. Museum no. IM.8-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Babur's languages were Turki, in which he wrote his memoirs, and Persian, the language of culture across Iran and Central Asia. His reign lasted only four years, but during that time he constructed new buildings and laid out gardens in the geometric Iranian style. None have survived.

At his death in 1530, his kingdom incorporated the major cities of Kabul, Lahore, Agra and Delhi, but his control remained fragile. Babur was succeeded by his son, Humayun, who lacked his father's determination and military brilliance. Within ten years, Humayun was forced out of Hindustan by the Afghan Sher Shah Suri, who took over Mughal territory and ruled from Delhi. His kingdom was short-lived, but he instituted an extremely effective administrative system that was his lasting legacy.

Brightly coloured watercolour painting with lots of people
Akbar receives the Iranian Ambassador Sayyid Beg in 1562, illustration to the Akbarnama, opaque watercolour on gold paper, by Farrukh Beg, about 1590 – 95, Mughul. Museum no. IS.2:27&28-1896. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Humayun fled with a small band of followers to take refuge in Iran at the court of Shah Tahmasp. With the Shah's help, he was able to return to Kabul, from where he eventually launched a successful attack on Delhi. Humayun regained his former territories after nearly 17 years, but died only months later after falling down the stone steps of his library at night. He was succeeded in 1556 by his remarkable 13-year-old son, Akbar.


Black and white map of India showing the Mughal empire territories
Map of India showing the extent of the Mughal territories.

Under the guidance of one of Humayun's close confidants, the aristocratic Iranian Bayram Khan, the young ruler began to expand his territories.

Some independent kingdoms were conquered; other rulers signed treaties and entered imperial service. Over the next 49 years Akbar extended Mughal rule over most of the north of the subcontinent, stretching from Gujarat in the west to Bengal in the east, and from Kabul and Kashmir in the north to the borders of the independent Deccan sultanates in the south. As new kingdoms were conquered, artists and craftsmen from many different regions entered the royal workshops. They brought their own distinctive styles to the monuments, paintings and artefacts being created for Akbar.

The population of the empire was predominantly Hindu, with a significant Muslim minority, and Hindus reached the highest levels of the administrative hierarchy. Akbar married some of the daughters of Hindu Rajput rulers.

In the royal House of Books (Ketabkhana), which housed the library as well as being the place where manuscripts were created, Hindustani artists were directed by two Iranian masters formerly in the service of his father, to produce a new style of book painting. Many of the calligraphers, bookbinders and illuminators who worked with them were also Iranian.

Brightly coloured painting with man on horseback spearing a tiger and figure cut in half wearing red trousers.
Hamza kills a tiger, detached folio from the Hamzanama, gouache on cotton backed with paper, 1562 – 77, Mughal. Museum no. IM.5-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Hamzanama

Their first major undertaking was the creation of the multiple, illustrated volumes of the Hamzanama, or 'Book of Hamza'.

These popular tales of the Muslim hero Hamza and his band of followers fighting against unbelievers, witches and demons, and supernatural or magical forces, were traditionally performed, rather than written down and read. However, Akbar ordered one of the court's most accomplished prose writers, another Iranian from the large city of Qazvin, to produce a written version that was then copied by calligraphers for this imperial volume. Slightly contradictory contemporary sources record that the tales filled 12 or 14 bound volumes, each with 100 paintings, and that the work took 15 years to complete. The exact years are not specified, but most authorities now agree that they fell between about 1562 and 1577.

Fewer than 200 of these paintings have survived, all of them separated from their bindings which have long disappeared. The largest group of 60 folios is now in the MAK (Museum für angewandte Kunst) in Vienna. The second largest group, comprising 28 complete folios and two fragments, is in the V&A.

Each of the large folios of the Hamzanama is made up of multiple layers. The text is written on paper, burnished and lightly flecked with gold and backed with cotton; the painting is done on cotton which is backed with paper. The layers were then glued together, and originally had borders, of which small remnants now remain.

Most of the paintings now in the V&A were acquired in the winter of 1880 – 81 when Caspar Purdon Clarke was sent to India on a purchasing trip to make acquisitions for what was then the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). The main purpose of the architect, who was the first Keeper of the Indian Section and would go on to become Director of the V&A, was to buy contemporary objects of a kind not represented in the museum. When in Kashmir, he wandered into a curiosity shop in the capital city of Srinagar, and noticed some large paintings which he immediately bought. Some were rescued from the windows of the shop, where they had been used to block out the winter frosts of the previous season. Their condition, inevitably, is poor: some have been damaged by fire or rain, and the colours on all the pages have faded significantly. In addition, at some stage in their history, probably in the 19th century, zealots have rubbed out the faces of all the living beings depicted.

Three brightly coloured paintings depicting Mughal scenes
Left to right: The disguised witch Anqarut ties the hero Malik Iraj to a tree; Rustam and Mihr Afruz prepare for their wedding in a garden; Hamza receives an envoy requesting help from an army of Westerners, detached folios from the Hamzanama, gouache on cotton backed with paper, Mughal. Museum nos. IS.1512-1883, IS.1519-1883, IS.2516-1883. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The paintings now in the MAK are considerably better preserved, and give a better idea of the vibrancy of the original colours.

The Hamzanama paintings demonstrate the beginning of a distinctively Mughal style that would become more refined as Akbar's reign progressed. Parallel trends simultaneously took place in architecture, and in the production of artefacts for the court.

The vertical format of the Hamzanama paintings, high-viewpoint and meticulous details of the surface ornamentation of some weapons and textiles, all derive from Iranian conventions, but are combined with a naturalism in the depiction of animals and birds that belong to Hindustani traditions.

Brightly coloured painting depicting Mughal scenes with weapons, people, tents and materials
Left to right: The murder of Hamza's son while he sleeps; the giant Zumrud Shah falls into a well and is beaten by gardeners, detached folios from the Hamzanama, gouache on cotton backed with paper, 1562 – 77, Mughal. Museum nos. IS.1508-1883, IS.1516-1883. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Though never realistic, the paintings nevertheless occasionally provide glimpses of contemporary life in even the most fantastic settings, a feature that would endure in Mughal painting.

Brightly coloured Mughal painting depicting red brick buildings and trees
Hamza's spy Basu beheads an enemy and gains entry to the castle of Acre, detached folio from the Hamzanama, gouache on cotton backed with paper, 1562 – 77, Mughal. Museum no. IS.1520-1883. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many of the buildings depicted appear to be of red sandstone, the material used in the construction of Akbar's monuments in the royal cities of Delhi and Agra, and in his new city, Fatehpur Sikri.

Architectural bracket in the shape of an elephant made from red sandstone
Bracket, red sandstone, about 1617, Mughal, Lahore or Agra. Museum no. IS.1066-1883. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The nascent Mughal style continued to evolve over the next decades as the artists were exposed to new influences, or new recruits joined them. Iranian artists sought employment at Akbar's court, bringing with them an enhanced attention to detail and sophisticated use of colour. They were vastly outnumbered by the calligraphers, craftsmen, architects, poets and scholars who also came from Iran, able to move easily into this Persian-speaking milieu.

In 1578 Persian, already the language of the cultivated elite, was officially adopted as the administrative language of the empire. This allowed reports to be collected in the central Record Office of the court from every province, each of which had many local languages.

A few years earlier, in 1574, a Translation Bureau (Maktabkhana) had been established as one of the major court institutions. It produced Persian translations of key texts, the most important of which were then illustrated.

The memoirs of Akbar's grandfather Babur was one of these.

Brightly coloured painting depicting a man sat under a red canopy with people around him
Babur receives Uzbek and Rajput envoys who congratulate him on his accession, detached folio from a copy of the Baburnama, opaque watercolour on paper, by Ramdas, about 1590, Mughal. Museum no. IM.275-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Baburnama

By the late 16th century, few at court were able to understand Turki, the language in which Babur had written. The Persian translation, the Baburnama (Book of Babur), introduced to a wide Mughal audience the account of his turbulent life before and after invading Hindustan. He gave detailed descriptions of the unfamiliar flora and fauna he came across, and recorded in forthright terms how much he disliked many aspects of the land, notably its climate and architecture. He also described many of the new gardens he laid out in the Iranian manner, and the plants he introduced from Central Asia.

Brightly coloured painting of figures working in a garden
Babur supervising the laying out of the Garden of Fidelity in Kabul, detached folio from a copy of the Baburnama, opaque watercolour on paper, by Ramdas, about 1590, Mughal. Museum no. IM.276&a-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The translation of Babur's memoirs from Turki to Persian was supervised by one of the great intellectuals of the age, Akbar's friend 'Abd al-Rahim, who also held the highest office in the empire. [....] The translation was finished in 1589, and several illustrated copies were made.

One manuscript dating to about 1590 reached the Western art market in the early 20th century, and its paintings were sold off separately in 1913: 20 folios were bought that year by the V&A, and at least 50 others are known in collections across the world.

p. 39, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, by J. P. Losty and Malini Roy
Two mughal paintings featuring calligraphy text, figures, trees and buildings
Left to right: Hindu ascetics at a shrine; the ceremony of acclaiming the royal standards, detached folios from a copy of the Baburnama, watercolour on paper, painting on right by Devji Gujarati, about 1590, Mughal. Museum nos. IM.260-1913, IM.261-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Harivamsa

Akbar's reign was shaped by his curiosity regarding religions other than his own Muslim faith on the one hand, and his desire for religious tolerance on the other. Acutely aware of tensions between his Hindu and Muslim subjects, he wanted the major Sanskrit texts to be translated into Persian so that they could be widely read by non-Hindus. In doing so, the hoped that "those who display hostility may refrain from doing so and may seek after the truth". The Translation Bureau was therefore given the task of producing Persian versions of fundamental texts such as the Ramayana (Razmnama, or Book of War) and the Harivamsa, considered to be an appendix to the Mahabharata, detailing the life of Krishna.

Vibrant painting in gold, yellow and black featuring Hindu god Krishna beheading Nikumba
Krishna kills the demon Nikumbha, detached folio from a copy of the Harivamsa, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, about 1590, Mughal. Museum no. IS.6-1970. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The translation of the Sanskrit text of the Harivamsa into Persian was finished by about 1590 and paintings were added. One imperial copy had its paintings removed in the early 1920s when stray pages appeared on the Western art market. The six folios in the V&A were part of this group, but were not acquired until 1970 when they were bequeathed by Dame Ada Macnaghten.

The Akbarnama

As these translations were nearing completion, Akbar gave the order for the history of his reign to be compiled, including an account of his real and mythical antecedents. The author was Abu'l Fazl, the great polymath of the age, who began his work in 1590 and completed most of it by 1596. His rigorously researched history drew on the central record office of the empire, a number of memoirs commissioned by the emperor from witnesses to recent events, and the recently-translated memoirs of Babur. Though always historically accurate, Abu'l Fazl also portrayed Akbar as the ideal monarch within Iranian traditions of kingship, and the perfect man within traditions of mystical Sufism.

The third volume of his text, the Ain-e Akbari (the Regulations, or Institutes of Akbar), describes the many departments of the royal household, including the Ketabkhana, with a list of the leading artists of the age. Many of their names are inscribed on paintings accompanying an incomplete, unbound manuscript of the Akbarnama that was bought by the South Kensington Museum in 1896. These demonstrate that the manuscript was originally intended to be the presentation copy for the emperor. The text covers the years 1560 to 1577 and has 116 paintings, all attributed by a contemporary librarian to the artists who painted them. These inscriptions, written in red ink beneath each illustration, record that one designed the composition (tarh), while a second, presumably junior, artist was responsible for the 'work' (‘amal), filling in the colours of this outline. In some cases, a specialist portraitist was given the task of painting the features of the main characters in the scene.

Some of the V&A's paintings from the Harivamsa and Akbarnama demonstrate another key formative influence in the development of Mughal art: contact with Western art.

In 1572, Akbar embarked on a military campaign to conquer the independent sultanate of Gujarat. The region was extremely wealthy, with sophisticated craft traditions and enormous textile production. The pilgrim port of Surat, from where Muslim pilgrims set off from all over the subcontinent to perform the Hajj, was also within its borders. Victory came to the Mughal forces early in 1573, and Akbar's procession through Surat is depicted in the Akbarnama.

Brightly coloured painting on tan background featuring people on elephant and horseback in a procession.
Akbar's triumphant entry into Surat, detached folio from a copy of the Akbarnama, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Farrukh Beg, 1590 – 95, Mughal. Museum no. IS.2:117-1896. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Among the crowd on the far right of the painting is a figure in blue clothes and a black hood, with blue eyes – he represents the Europeans that Akbar encountered for the first time, and energetically questioned about their lives, habits and beliefs. They had come from the Portuguese settlement of Goa, and this encounter would result in Akbar sending a delegation there, to request that a religious delegation be sent to the Mughul court. The first Jesuit mission arrived at the city of Fatehpur in 1580, and installed a chapel inside the house that Akbar had assigned to them. Here, they displayed paintings with Christian subjects that caused a sensation. The emperor brought his leading courtiers to see them, and then sent for his artists. The impact of this – and of paintings and engravings brought by subsequent Jesuit missions – was soon apparent in Mughal painting. The principles of scientific perspective were not followed, but a sense of depth derived from European art is found in some of the paintings in the Akbarnama.

Brightly coloured painting of people battling on either side of a rocky mountain.
Akbar directing the attack on Ranthambhor Fort in 1569, detached folio from a copy of the Akbarnama, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Khim Karan, 1590 – 95, Mughal. Museum no. IS.2:73-1896. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the paintings from the Harivamsa, showing the dramatic combat between the gods Indra and Krishna taking place above a boat sailing past a rocky landscape, is also obviously inspired by European art.

Krishna in combat with Indra, detached folio from a copy of the Harivamsa, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, about 1590, Mughal. Museum no. IS.5-1970. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Occasionally, a print of the kind brought by the Third Mission led by Father Jerome Xavier in 1595 was copied precisely.

Brightly coloured religious scene with three women (one lying down), with a cherub and Jesus in the background against a blue sky. Centre panel is surrounded by calligraphy and floral borders in a tan colour.
The Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Nini, about 1600, Mughal. Museum no. IM.139A-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Other paintings were created for copies of the translation into Persian of the Life of Christ that had been requested by Akbar, and were written by Xavier in collaboration with a scholar at the Mughal court.

Preparations for the birth of Christ, detached folio from a Persian version of the life of Christ, opaque water and gold on paper, by Masud Deccani, about 1600 – 05, Mughal. Museum no. IS.170-1950. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The same mingling of widely differing artistic traditions in the art of the book during Akbar's reign was certainly found in objects, though comparatively few have survived.

Gold spoon set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds
Gold spoon set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, about 1600, Mughal. Museum no. IM.173-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A jewelled gold spoon exemplifies the uniquely Hindustani goldsmith's technique of kundan which is still widely practised today across the subcontinent to set stones in gold. It is mentioned by Abu'l Fazl in the Ain-e Akbari, but has antecedents that predate the arrival of the Mughuls by centuries.

Gold thumb ring set with emeralds and rubies - richly decorated
Gold thumb ring set with emeralds and rubies and enamelled on the inside, 1600 – 50, Mughal. Museum no. IM.207-1920. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The design of the jewelled decoration is purely Iranian, and relates to contemporary illuminated designs in the art of the book.

Brass vase in a round shape with engraving
Water vessel, cast golden alloy, engraved and filled with black composition, about 1580 – 1600, Mughal. Museum no. IS.21-1889. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Similarly, a metal water vessel made at about the same time demonstrates the virtuosity of Hindustani metalworkers working with a master calligrapher/designer who was probably Iranian. The shape is Indian, but the decoration within cusped cartouches (an ornate framing motif) is based on Iranian designs of the period of Shah Tahmasp (reigned 1524 – 76).

IMage showing both sides of a metal dagger with slightly curved blade and twisted handles.
Dagger (both sides shown), watered steel, chiselled and with traces of gold overlay, about 1580 – 1600, Mughal. Museum no. IS.86-1981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A dagger of watered steel, which was originally overlaid with gold, shows the close relationship that must have existed between the artist/designers in the royal workshops and the craftsmen who made objects like this. The chiselled details of a tiger attacking an elephant whose rider, or mahout, tries to fight it off on one side of the blade; and the combat between a horse and an elephant directed by their respective riders on the other, relate to similar scenes in paintings done at the end of Akbar's reign.

Left: mother of pearl covered ewer (jug). Right: round mother of pearl covered salver (plate)
Left to right: Ewer and salver, mother-of-pearl with metal pins, about 1600 – 25, Gujurat. Museum nos. 4258-1857 & 4257-1857. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By this time, specialist craftsmen in the provinces of the empire supplied the court, and exported their wares to Europe. Gujarat was famous for its inlaid wooden boxes and cabinets, and for its artefacts made out of thin pieces of mother of pearl. Their intended market determined the design of the finished piece, and often its form. Therefore, items made for the huge market in Portuguese Goa might include European-style ewers and salvers that, from there, often travelled westwards and were sometimes given European silver or gilt silver mounts.

very detailed wooden panel with mother of pear inlay of people, animals and Mughal motifs
Altar frontal, wood inlaid with ivory, 1600 – 10, Gujarat for the Portuguese market in Goa. Museum no. IS.15-1882. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The rare surviving altar frontal was probably also intended for a Goan patron, but the Mughal-influenced motifs surrounding its central panel of Christian imagery are similar to those on cabinets that were made for the domestic market and must have been produced in quantity. The designs on the altar frontal also have parallels in Mughal painting from that period, showing how far the influence of court art had spread.

Drawing in browns and greens of elephants and palm trees
Mythical beast with elephants, line drawing with coloured wash, about 1610 – 20, Mughal. Museum no. IM.155-1914. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By Akbar's death in 1605, Mughal art had brought together disparate influences from Hindustan, Iran and Europe. New industries such as carpet weaving were firmly established, while existing crafts with antecedents long predating the Mughals thrived by having access to much larger markets and new patrons.


Akbar was succeeded by his son Salim, who took the title Jahangir ('World Seizer'). He inherited a stable and immensely wealthy empire, with an efficient administration that ensured cash flowed from every province into the twelve separate treasuries of the royal household. One treasury was for precious stones, of which there was a vast store, and another held jewelled artefacts including wine cups made of single precious stones and gold thrones. It also held the jewellery that was worn in considerable quantity by the emperor and his family and was exchanged as gifts during the major festivals of the court.

Man standing holding jewels in left hand wearing orange clothing on a green floral background with gold floral surround.
Shah Jahan as a prince, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Abu'l Hasan, about 1617, Mughal. Museum no. IM.14-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jahangir already had several wives before he married the beautiful and intelligent Mehr un-Nissa in 1611. She came from an aristocratic Iranian family, and both her father and brother reached the highest positions in the Mughal hierarchy after the family came to court. Jahangir gave her the title Nur Jahan (Light of the World), and became devoted to the highly educated and dynamic woman who effectively ruled with him. She was the only Mughal queen to have coins issued in her name. Both were patrons of architecture, though the greatest artistic achievements of the time were to be found in the art of the book, Jahangir's great passion, and in the innovations in some of the materials and techniques used to create objects.

The Jahangirnama

Like his great-grandfather Babur, Jahangir wrote his memoirs which were entitled the Jahangirnama or Tuzuk-e Jahangir. In between accounts of the rituals of court life, political events and family matters like births, marriages and deaths, they reveal that Jahangir inherited a similar fascination for the natural world.

Unlike Babur, Jahangir commissioned his leading artists to paint some of the events, people, birds and animals that he described. He mentions multiple copies being made of the Jahangirnama in 1618 but no illustrated intact volume exists. Nevertheless, at least part of one was definitely finished – a folio depicting the submission of the Rana of Mewar to Jahangir's son Khurram in 1614 has a catchword in the lower left of the painting, used in manuscripts to link the painting to the text that follows on the next page.

Brightly coloured watercolour painting showing lots of people visiting a seated figure under a red and yellow parasol with mountains in the background.
Prince Khurram receiving the submission of the Rana of Mewar in 1614, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Nanha, about 1615 – 18, Mughal. Museum no. IS.185-1984. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another painting was certainly intended for a copy of the Jahangirnama, but ended up in an album created for his son when he became emperor. It demonstrates Jahangir's close interest in the natural world and also provides information not given in his memoirs.

watercolour painting pf a zebra on a pale background surrounded by a floral border.
A zebra presented to the Mughal emperor, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Mansur, 1621, Mughal. Museum no. IM.23-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1621 a delegation came to court and presented the emperor with rare and exotic birds and animals. One was an African zebra, an animal Jahangir had never seen before and which seemed like a horse painted with stripes. He wrote, "One might say the painter of fate, with a strange brush, had left it on the page of the world". He intended it to be sent to Shah 'Abbas of Iran, with whom he regularly exchanged valuable or rare presents, but there is no mention of the name of the artist to whom he gave an order to record the animal's appearance. However, on the right of the painting, the emperor himself has written in his distinctive spidery hand that it was the work of one his two leading artists, Mansur, and includes details of how and when the zebra came to court.

The life of Jahangir and his court was nomadic, with long absences from the major capital cities of Agra and Lahore. Formal transfers between these two cities involved travelling with a vast tented city to accommodate the women's quarters, the nobility, the servants and camp followers. Two sets of tents were needed so that one could be set up ahead, at the next halting place. A reduced camp travelled across long distances, sometimes being absent from the capitals for years at a time.

Jahangir's memoirs make it clear that many artists and craftsmen travelled with him, even if their names or activities are rarely mentioned. Therefore, when Jahangir left Agra for the city of Ajmer in Rajasthan in 1613, and remained there for almost three years, signed and dated paintings depicting the emperor must have been done in the city. His son also had his own small entourage of artists accompanying him, even when he undertook military campaigns, as Nanha's depiction of the submission of the redoubtable Rana of Mewar reveals, the artist has included himself at work in the painting.

These prolonged absences from the major cities may explain the apparent reduction in the number of artists in royal service – the House of Books that included the huge imperial library must have remained in the palace at Agra, but the leading artists and calligraphers accompanied Jahangir on his travels. In 1618, when he mentions copies of the Jahangirnama being made, and the artist Abu'l Hasan painting a splendid frontispiece for the royal copy, the court was in Ahmadabad, the capital of Gujarat. This was also the only opportunity that another artist, Bishndas, had to study two minor rulers of Gujarat, Rao Bharah and Jassa Jam, who never travelled out of the province.

Painting of two men facing each other kneeling on a carpetted platform outside. There are trees and green in the background.
The Gujarati landowners Rao Bharah and Jassa Jam, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Bishndas, about 1618 – 20, Mughal. Museum no. IM.124-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Portraiture reached an unprecedented level of naturalism under Jahangir, a phenomenon that is usually attributed to the royal artists' exposure to European portraits. Famously, the English ambassador Sir Thomas Roe, who visited Jahangir in Ajmer and then travelled with the court for a time, showed the emperor a miniature by Isaac Oliver. This was such a treasured possession that Roe was unwilling to give it to Jahangir, but allowed him to borrow it. One of the leading court artists was ordered to make a copy of it, and when Roe was shown the original, accompanied by five identical versions, he had some difficulty in recognising his own.

The practice of taking likenesses of individuals at court had begun under Akbar but reached unprecedented levels of accuracy in Jahangir's reign.

Man in white robes and orange trousers standing with his arms crossed on a pale green background
Portrait of Zain Khan Koka, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, probably by Manohar, about 1600, Mughal. Museum no. IS.91-1965. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Single portraits were clearly used as templates to transfer the image to scenes of court assemblies. A portrait of Mirza Ghazi, with its plain pale green background is reproduced at exactly the same size in a group scene of Jahangir and his courtiers in a garden.

Man in pink clothing and a white and gold sash holding a branch of a plant. Richly decorated gold border
Portrait of Mirza Ghazi, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Manohar, about 1610, Mughal. Museum no. IM.118-1921. © Victoria and ALbert Museum, London

Different colours have been used to fill in the outline of the group portrait than were used on the single portrait.

Brightly coloured watercolour painting depicting people in a garden
Jahangir receiving his son in a garden, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Manohar, about 1610 – 15, Mughal. Museum no. IM.9-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The portrait has beautifully painted gold flowering plants on indigo-dyed paper, and decorative borders of great inventiveness were added to paintings and calligraphic specimens that were preserved in the albums of Jahangir, now all dispersed.

Two painted calligraphy panels: left one has green decorated border featuring flowers and birds, right one is gilded and decorated with botanical designs.
Left to right: Detached album folios of illuminated calligraphy, ink with opaque watercolour and gold on paper, calligraphy by Mir 'Ali, 16th century, Iran; borders, (left) about 1610 – 20, (right) about 1630 – 50, Mughal. Museum nos. IM.134A-1921 & IM.25A-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sometimes the panels of calligraphy, often dating to much earlier times and treasured as the work of a great master, were themselves decorated with small panels depicting animals, or with shimmering golden illumination and flowers.

Decorated calligraphy panel featuring European style flowers in yellow, blue, orange and white on a tan background.
Detached folio from an album of Shah Jahan, ink with opaque watercolour and gold on paper, calligraphy by Mir 'Ali, 16th century, Bukhara; illumination by Daulat, about 1610 – 20, Mughal; borders about 1630 – 50, Mughal. Museum no. IM.12A-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The flowers were derived from European engravings, probably seen by Mughal artists in the borders of Netherlandish prints of Biblical scenes owned by the Jesuits and often brought out by them in court gatherings.

Jahangir mentions in his memoirs an Iranian poet who had been given the title Bibadal Khan, 'the Peerless One'. His name was Sa'ida and he probably arrived at the Mughal court early in Jahangir's reign. His skills were many and varied – in addition to being a poet, he was a calligrapher, a lapidary (cutter, polisher or engraver of gem stones), and one of several specialists who was able to inscribe in minute lettering the title of Jahangir on his personal possessions made of precious stones, jade or imported Chinese porcelain. He was also a goldsmith who was given the position of head of the goldsmiths department.

His ability to work hardstones perhaps explains the appearance, during Jahangir's reign, of objects made of nephrite jade that were inscribed with the emperor's titles. One of these is a wine cup inscribed with Persian verses, the hijri date 1022, and the regnal year 8 (corresponding to the first half of 1613). The verses can be connected to Sa’ida-ye Gilani, who almost certainly made the cup.

Dark green jade cup with handle, inscribed with white Persian writing around the top edge.
Jahangir's wine cup, nephrite jade, probably by Sa'ida-ye Gilani, 1613, Mughal. Museum no. IM.152-1924. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The raw material, imported from Khotan, was probably already in the royal treasury when Jahangir became emperor, but no finished artefacts can be reliably dated before his reign. The techniques used to fashion nephrite jade, which cannot be carved but has to be abraded or incised using diamond drills and small lap wheels, are the same as those used to shape objects of rock crystal, a material commonly found in the subcontinent and already used for hundreds of years. Nephrite jade was probably still a rare commodity in the empire at this period, its availability was dependant upon whether or not the narrow trade routes from Khotan, across Tibet and through Kashmir to Lahore, were open. However, the material quickly began to be used in typically innovative fashion by the royal master craftsmen. Wine cups of increasingly complex form were made, and jade artefacts were also inlaid with precious stones. A jade pendant in our collections, set with rubies and emeralds of very high quality in gold, was very probably made in the imperial workshops.

Green jade pendant set with rubies and emeralds in the shapes of flowers and birds with a large green emerald drop at the bottom
Pendant, nephrite jade set with rubies and emeralds in gold, about 1610 – 20, Mughal. Museum no. 02535(IS). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Textiles of Jahangir's reign are particularly rare, but a unique and extremely splendid satin coat embroidered all over with birds and animals in a flower-strewn rocky landscape must have been made for a leading individual at court.

Heavily embroidered sleeveless coat featuring birds, animals, flowers and plants on an ivory background and mounted on a mannequin.
Hunting coat, embroidered satin, about 1610 – 25, Mughal. Museum no. IS.18-1947. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Detail of fine embroidery of deer, lions, ducks, peacocks and butterflies in blues, greens, yellows on ivory background
Hunting coat (detail), embroidered satin, about 1610 – 25, Mughal. Museum no. IS.18-1947. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many details, including some of the animals and plant forms are replicated in the borders of contemporary paintings and on metalwork, underlining a fundamental difference between artistic production in the Mughal empire and in Europe – as in Iran, Central Asia and the rest of the subcontinent, no distinction is made between so-called 'fine' and 'decorative' art.

Shah Jahan

Jahangir died in 1627 and after a short but violent interval when rivals competed for the throne, his son Shah Jahan became emperor in 1628. Shah Jahan had rebelled against his father – as Jahangir as a prince had rebelled against Akbar – and had been estranged from 1621 onwards. Some of this time was spent in the Deccan, where the prince tried to form alliances with the traditional enemies of the Mughal state. Sensitively observed portraits of two men that were considered enemies to the Mughal state can only have been done by an eye witness, and demonstrate that artists must have accompanied Shah Jahan.

colourful watercolour of a man in white robes, wearing red shoes carrying a red walking stick
Portrait of Malik 'Ambar, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Hashim, about 1620, Mughal. Museum no. IM.21-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Malik Ambar was born in Ethiopia in about 1549 and sold into slavery. He was eventually bought by a leading member of the court of Nizam Shah, ruler of Ahmadnagar, one of the fragile sultanates of the Deccan. The slave became a soldier, and eventually a commander of the army which fought against Akbar's forces. By 1600 he was so powerful that he effectively ruled Ahmadnagar until his death in 1626.

Watercolour painting of a man stand holding onto a blue sword, wearing white clothing and an orange headband
Portrait of Sultan Muhammad Qutb Shah of Golconda, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Hashim, about 1620, Mughal. Museum no. IM.22-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sultan Muhammad Qutb Shah ruled nearby Golconda and was renowned for his patronage of the arts. Hashem's painting shows the distinctively different weapons and jewellery worn by the ruler compared with Mughal fashions at the time.

After Shah Jahan's accession, paintings inherited from his father were combined in sumptuous albums with newly commissioned paintings. Decorated panels of calligraphy by great Iranian masters were pasted to the back of each painting, and floral borders were added to each side of the folio, creating a sense of unity throughout the albums

Shah Jahan seems to have made a conscious attempt to obliterate all physical record of his father. Structures built by order of Jahangir in the royal cities of Agra and Lahore were replaced with those in a new style, characterised by profusely carved or inlaid floral decoration. More subtle slights are apparent in paintings. In a representation of the three emperors that has a companion piece, now in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Akbar hands the imperial crown not to his actual successor but to Shah Jahan. Jahangir is ignored.

Brightly coloured watercolour of two men on horses with four men walking alongside with a mountainous backdrop
Shah Jahan riding with one of his sons, watercolour, painted by Manohar in about 1615, alterations by Murar in about 1630, Mughal. Museum no. IM.12-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

More surprisingly, in another painting, Shah Jahan's head replaces that of his father, and the original depiction of himself as Crown Prince, seen following the emperor, has been replaced by the head of his own son, Dara Shokuh. All other elements of the painting by Manohar remain unchanged. The artist of the replacement heads, Murar, signed his work in minute inscriptions immediately behind Shah Jahan, and underneath the Crown Prince's left hand.

Shah Jahan inherited the volumes of the combined libraries of Akbar and Jahangir, but on the basis of what has survived, his interest in the art of the book seems to have been much less than that of his father – though a contemporary historian notes that he inspected the work of the artists every day. Some traditions carried on – the portrait of Shah Jahan's brother-in-law, Asaf Khan, has the same pale green background of earlier portraits, though faintly drawn scenes have been added, alluding to episodes from his life.

Brightly coloured watercolour of a man in purple with a decorated shield at his hip. Faint images appear in the background above a village
Portrait of Asaf Khan, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Bichitr, about 1631, Mughal. Museum no. IM.26-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Many portraits of the emperor and his sons were made. He was depicted holding the jewels which he loved, and about which he knew a great deal, and also on horseback with a parasol held over his head by his son – one of the main emblems of royalty.

Two brightly coloured watercolour paintings showing Shah Jahan holding an emerald and carrying a sword on the left and out riding with his sun in a sandy landscape on the right
Left to right: Portrait of Shah Jahan holding an emerald, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Muhammad 'Abed, about 1628, Mughal. Museum no. IM.233-1921. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Shah Jahan and his son Dara Shokuh, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, by Govardhan, about 1630, Mughal. Museum no. IM.18-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Nevertheless, Shah Jahan's lasting legacy is to be seen in the great monuments he constructed – the forts of Agra and Lahore that were transformed with new buildings decorated with coloured stone inlays, and the new city called Shahjahanabad that was built in Delhi between 1639 and 1648. White marble from the mines of Makrana in Rajasthan was used prolifically in Agra and Delhi, carved in low relief or inlaid with semi-precious stones in a new Mughal style inspired by imported Florentine panels inlaid with pietre dure. The most common designs were rows of flowering plants, which now became the defining style of the arts of Shah Jahan's reign, seen in every medium from architecture and textiles to metalwork and the art of the book.

Black and white photograph of part of the highly decorated and inlaid colonnade at Agra showing floral designs.
A section of the colonnade from the bath house in the palace at Agra on display at the V&A in the 1950s, inlaid white marble, 1628 – 58, Mughal. Museum no. IS.167-1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In Lahore and Srinagar, where buildings were constructed of brick or wood, new buildings were embellished with colourful tile revetments. Walled gardens were laid out in the same cities, their gateways also decorated with polychrome tiles. Tile revetments decorated the mansions, mosques and tombs built by nobles in Lahore – these had floral motifs, Persian verses or religious inscription in Arabic, depending on the context.

Shah Jahan spent a certain amount of time with his family in the city of Burhanpur in the Deccan and it was here that his beloved wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, who had the title Mumtaz Mahal, died in 1631 giving birth to their fourteenth child. Her body was moved to Agra, where Shah Jahan ordered a tomb to be built for her. The Taj Mahal was built from white marble, with red sandstone gateways. The low walls enclosing the cenotaph of his wife, and after his death, his own, were also inlaid or carved with rows of flowering plants.

The cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal in the Taj Mahal at Agra, watercolour on paper, about 1836, Delhi, India. Museum no. IM.8-1923. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sa'ida-ye Gilani continued as Superintendent of the Goldsmiths under Shah Jahan, and almost certainly continued to make vessels and other artefacts from jade. Jade and rock crystal was used more prolifically than ever before. Wine cups and bowls, boxes, and hilts for daggers and swords were made of both materials, and were sometimes also set with precious stones in gold.

White nephrite jade pen box with utensils set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds in gold in the shapes of flowers , petals and leaves.
Pen box and utensils, white nephrite jade set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds, 1650 – 1700, Mughal. Museum no. 02549(IS). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The most remarkable jade vessel known to have been made for Shah Jahan is a wine cup of white nephrite jade. It is inscribed with a date that converts to 1657, the last year of his reign, and his title, Lord of the Second Conjunction. This makes reference to his Timurid ancestor – Timur styled himself Lord of the Conjunction, signifying his birth at the auspicious planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Mars.

Shah Jahan's cup, white nephrite jade, 1657, Mughal. Museum no. IS.12-1962. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In that same year, Shah Jahan fell so seriously ill that it was feared he would die. He nominated his eldest son, Dara Shokuh, as his successor, but although the emperor recovered, a war of succession broke out between his sons. Aurangzeb emerged triumphant, deposed his father, and proclaimed himself emperor with the title 'Alamgir in 1658. All but one of his brothers were put to death by the ruthless new emperor to eliminate all future threats to his rule. He imprisoned his father in the fort at Agra, from where Shah Jahan could see the tomb of his wife in which he would also be buried when he died in 1666.

Brightly coloured watercolour of a man standing with a sword wearing orange and yellow robes and a 'halo' around his head. Green background.
Portrait of the emperor 'Alamgir, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, about 1700, Mughal. Museum no. IM.286-1913. © Victorian and Albert Museum, London

'Alamgir ruled until 1707, and extended the Mughal empire to its greatest size. This involved long campaigns to subdue the sultanates of the Deccan, which were ultimately successful. However, years of almost constant warfare drained the wealth of the empire and 'Alamgir's absence from the northern cities for nearly three decades left them in economic decline. After his death, the empire began slowly but irreversibly to break up, with regional governors becoming virtually independent and new rulers making land grabs. Power drained away from the Mughal emperors in favour of regional courts. Many of them followed artistic and architectural conventions established by Shah Jahan, though necessarily on a much reduced scale. None could match the splendour of the Mughal court at its wealthiest.

Header image:
Babur supervising the laying out of the Garden of Fidelity in Kabul, detached folio from a copy of the Baburnama, opaque watercolour on paper, by Bishndas, about 1590, Mughal. Museum no. IM.276-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London