It was an empire whose legends many have heard, but with which most people are not likely to be very familiar. Descended from both the infamous Genghis Khan and the merely famous Timur (Tamerlane), the Mughals were an eclectic race of people who spread across Central and Southeast Asia. They built an empire in India that lasted from 1526 to the mid-nineteenth century, and whose decline would be so devastating to India that at the time it was widely cited as a reason the country needed British colonial rule. The Mughals left behind a rich tradition of art and culture—millions of people visit their masterpiece, the Taj Mahal, every year—that was as culturally diverse as the people themselves, and which has left a lasting impact on Indian culture.
The Mughals (a name which reflects their ancestors, the Mongols) traced direct descent from Timur, who in the fourteenth century established an empire stretching from the Caspian and Mediterranean seas to the Gulf and which stretched as far east as modern-day Pakistan. Numerous miniatures showing the Mughal lineage depict Timur at the head, followed by Babur, who established the Mughal Empire, and Babur’s sons. Babur, the first great Mughal, made his way to India from the Ferghana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan; his dream was to capture Samarkand. When he failed on his third attempt, he decided to change course and instead headed southeast to Kabul and from there to India, where he defeated the sitting ruler, the Afghan Ibrahim Lodi. Although India had been under Afghan rule for centuries and was open to Persian influences, these only increased under the Mughals. Ethnically Turks, the Mughals regarded Persian culture as the epitome of refinement, making Persian the court and administrative language.
Babur, a cultured Timurid, loved gardens and books—miniatures show him commissioning gardens, and he patronized scholars, writers and calligraphers. Babur was also the author of an extraordinary memoir, the Baburnama. Written in his native Chagatay Turkish, it is unique both in form and as a historical document; it details his campaigns in India, his dislike of the country with its heat and lack of melons, and his love for Kabul (where he is buried), among other topics. Babur’s death plunged the nascent empire into chaos, and following a defeat at the hands of the Afghan Sher Shah Sur, his son, Humayun, fled west, first to Sind and then to the court of Shah Tahmasp Safavi of Iran at Tabriz.
The Iranian refuge would prove to be very important for the Mughals. Politically, the shah’s support helped Humayun recapture and re-establish the Mughal presence in India. Culturally, it led to a stronger adoption of Persian artistic traditions and influences. In Iran, Humayun, a lover of books, saw the works of master artists at the shah’s studio in Tabriz. He brought at east two of those artists back with him to India to head his painting studio. Much of the miniature work produced in this period is purely Safavid in style. The themes too are often Persian: the stories of Laila and Majnun from the poet Nizami’s Khamsa were seemingly a particular favorite.
Akbar, who commissioned manuscripts throughout his reign and had a great love for books despite being illiterate, expanded on the painting tradition started by his father, Humayun. Perhaps his most significant achievement in illustration was his commission of the Hamzanama, which narrates the exploits of Amir Hamza, the Prophet’s uncle. The project consisted of 1400 paintings and took fifteen years to reach completion. Although they were supervised by two Persian masters from Tabriz, a number of Indian artists worked on the book and in its course helped bring together the varied styles of the artists into a unique Akbari style of painting. It is often said that Akbar’s library matched the wealth of his armory: during his reign he commissioned romances, Hindu epics and histories of previous reigns as well as his own.
It can be argued that even though the Mughals were originally from Central Asia, over time they became a truly Indian empire incorporating and imbibing influences from their adopted home. A recent exhibit at the British Library in London entitled Mughal India brilliantly showcased this intermingling of Central and Southeast Asian cultures. There were clear Persian and Turkic influences on the Mughal court, and these were intermingled with Indian traditions. The Mughals maintained an interest in Turkish and Persian poetry and stories, and these two cultural influences on Mughal art and architecture continued until the end of the empire.
For example, Akbar commissioned a work called the Tarikh-i-Khandan-i-Timurriya about the ancestral line of the Mughals from Timur—who, as we recall, built an empire that stretched from Central Asia to the borders of modern-day India. Akbar also ordered the Baburnama to be translated from Turkish to Persian and to be illustrated. Akbar’s love for Persian poetry is very visible in his commissions of works like the the Darabnama and the Khamsa (Collected Poems) of the famous poet Nizami. This weakness for Persian poetry seemed to have passed from generation to generation, with each of the great Mughals commissioning illustrations of works by poets like Nizami, Firdausi, Hafiz and Sa’adi.
Mughal support for illustrations and commissions of Persian epics and poetry stories helped spread the art of miniatures as well as the stories themselves to other princely states across India. At the British Library exhibit was an 18th century illustration of an episode from Firdausi’s epic, the Shahnameh. The illustration is attributed to the artist Mir Kalan Khan at the north Indian princely court of Awadh. By this time, the Mughal court was in decline—but rather than dying out, the stories and illustrations the Mughals loved so much had now been adopted by other rulers. The illustration mentioned above is much more Indian in style than illustrations from the early Mughal court. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Shahnameh was an Indian story, and that the famous Mount Behistun depicted in the illustration was not, in fact, a real mountain in Iran, but one in India itself. In a way, this Mughal influence lives on in India even today. The stories of Sirin-Farhad, Laila-Majnun and others championed by the Mughal illustrators have become as much a part of Indian history as the Hindu epics themselves.