The wine cup of Shah Jahan

This unique wine cup of white nephrite jade is an outstanding example of jade craftsmanship and is one of the most exquisite surviving objects from the court of the Mughal dynasty that ruled the Indian subcontinent from about 1526 to 1857.

The cup was made in 1657 for Shah Jahan who ruled the Mughal Empire from 1628 to 1658. Shah Jahan was descended from Amir Timur, a ruthless Central Asian conqueror, who swept across the Middle East and India during the 14th century. Timur's fame was such that far away in England he was celebrated in the play 'Tamburlaine' by Christopher Marlowe two centuries after his lifetime.

Wine cup made for the Emperor Shah Jahan, 1657, India, white nephrite jade. Museum no. IS.12-1962, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The cup consists of a gourd shape with a handle shaped like the head of a ram. The base features acanthus leaves radiating out from a lotus flower which is raised to form a pedestal for the cup. The different features of the cup reflect the variety of cultural and artistic influences that were welcomed at the Mughal court. Persian in their cultural background and Indian by adoption, the Mughals were also open to new ideas from the West. Jesuits at the Mughal court, entertaining futile ideas of converting an Empire, were welcomed for their learning; ambassadors and merchants for their exotic gifts and promises of trade. Craftsmen-adventurers were especially welcomed for their skills and knowledge of unfamiliar technologies.

The use of a gourd form for the body of the cup is Chinese in inspiration, while the lotus petals and sensitivity of animal portraiture are characteristic features of Hindu art. The ideas of the pedestal support and the use of acanthus leaves are also European in origin and parallel similar elements in the decoration of Mughal architecture during Shah Jahan's reign.

Yet for all its eclecticism, with features from China, Iran, Europe and India, the art of the Mughals achieved a brilliant unity. This unity is perfectly exemplified in the jade cup which entered Shah Jahan's treasury in the last year of his reign and now provides such strong visual support to the legend of the dynasty's splendour.