Mughal Series|An Examination of Mughal Hunting Scenes (Part A Intro and Akbar)

Problems of Power, Imperial Identity, and the Central Asian Legacy


The majority of contemporary studies of Mughal painting present its changes in style and artistic tradition. The studied paintings have been seen examples of historical narrative and visualized text. However, the fact that many illustrations are generically appropriate for describing the adjacent text tells Mughal painting cannot be fully comprehended in this way.[1] Unlike most book-length studies and articles that examine the identification and comparison of styles, in the article “The Hierarchical Principles of Shah-Jahani Painting”, Ebba Koch argues that the Shah-Jahani manuscripts were created not merely for an aesthetic purpose, but explored to political ends, to create programmatic statements of order and hierarchy, a driving force which was not supposed to change throughout the paintings created under his reign.[2] The examination of Shah Jahani painting within the power structure of the emperor’s rule provides an integrative approach that uncovers the political and ideological concepts in Mughal painting. For example, the darbar scenes (court scenes) under the reign of Akbar are depicted as small private meetings and figures are given a sense of movement in the architectural settings. In contrast, the same theme of painting from Shah Jahan’s time is shown as an ever-repeated and standardized image. According to Ebba Koch, this change in the court style is purposeful since the artistic aspects of Shah Jahani painting were highly regulated towards the emperor’s imperial ideology.

Taking Ebba Koch’s notion of power structure as a starting point, this article is going to examine another recurring theme in Mughal painting, the royal hunt, by looking at the dynamics of power structure through their imperial identity. This study seeks to incorporate the Central Asian legacy of Mughals and the concept of sacred kingship into the exploration of qualities of leadership to reveal the different self-realizations of Mughal emperors.

Three emperors’ hunting scenes are going to be investigated in this article. Akbar (r. 1556-1605), who was enthroned on 14 February 1556, consolidated the imperial authority and assimilated a heterogeneous body of nobles and bound them to the throne. During his reign, a distinctive Mughal painting style developed incorporating various artistic traditions. Second is his son, Jahangir (r. 1605-27). Being an extremely complex character, Jahangir was both a connoisseur of art and a cruelty.[3]  The third emperor is Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58), son of Jahangir, grandson of Akbar. Thanks to the firm base left by his predecessors, he ruled over a relatively peaceful empire that was secure and prosperous during his reign, so his power was unparalleled in Mughal history.

Akbari Painting and Hunting Scenes

When Akbar came to throne, he was only thirteen. In the early days of Akbar’s reign, the inexperienced teenager emperor faced numerous internal and external forces. His enemies wished to gain more influence for themselves. The young and ambitious emperor managed to maintain his power. For example, Bayram Khan, appointed as the vakil or vice-regent and Khan-i Khanan or chief minister when Akbar ascended the throne, then lost the emperor’s favor due to a potential rebellion. Learned from these conflicts, Akbar’s political agenda is clear, in order to secure his place at the pinnacle of the empire and to distinguish himself from other great Muslim rulers, he fashioned himself as the holy savior, that is, he sees himself not only the supreme ruler of the vast empire, but also the spiritual guide of all his subjects.[4] To manage the heterogeneous mixture of nobles and being an ideal ruler, Akbar accepted the diversity of Mughal society and reconciled Muslim and Hindu subjects. He applied Hindu law to areas settled by Hindus, and eliminated jizya, or poll tax on non-Muslims. Although Akbar displayed a keen interest in other religions, welcoming Hindu practices and Christian views, he never lost his control over religious practice. He created his own religion, the Divine Religion or Din-i Ilahi. Derived from the order of Akbar’s discipleship for his Religion, khanazadi or devoted, hereditary service to the emperor important in his period refers to the proper behavior and attitude for the nobles. By enrolling royal disciples from among his nobles, Akbar asserted his possession of the divine light of esoteric knowledge and his ordained ancestry from a Mongol princess.[5]

Akbar’s cultural agenda echoed his sacred sovereignty by promoting his imperial identity through making illustrated manuscripts, a political and artistic practice he adopted from his predecessors. The history of imperial Mughal painting production had begun before Akbar’s enthronement when his father Humayun had not established himself firmly in India. The second Mughal emperor Humayun was challenged by Afghani leaders and chased into exile in Safavid dynasty for almost fifteen years. During Humayun’s exile in Safavid court, he enjoyed the Iranian artistic style and works. He assembled his own manuscript workshop and brought two of Shah Tahmasp’s artists, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abd as-Samad back to his court when he regained the throne of Hindustan in 1555 with the aid of Safavid ruler. Less than a year after he returned to Delhi, Humayun fell down the stairs of his library and died. One of the artistic traditions that Akbar inherited is the kitabkhana or royal workshop that his father had established. Over the following years, Akbar increased what Humayun left by adding a large number of books obtained from his conquests in Gujarat, Jaunpur, Bihar, Kashmir, Bengal, and the Deccan.[6]

Due to Akbar’s need to assert his authority and his enthusiasm for literary, historical, and philosophical works, he encouraged the production of manuscripts, through which, he gained the power of communication with a diverse group of people. His kitabkhana was full of Iranian master painters, indigenous Hindu artists and craftsmen as well as excellent architects. Later in his reign, more than a hundred painters had become famous masters of art, and many more had attained success.[7] Despite the fact that Akbar was illiterate, he had a huge passion for poetry and painting. Abu’l Fazl, Akbar’s venerating biographer wrote in the A’in-i-Akbari (Constitution of Akbar): “Experienced people bring books daily and read them before His Majesty, who hears every book from the beginning to the end.” [8] Akbar’s personal taste for painting might be criticized by orthodox Muslims who look on images as blasphemous behavior to compete with the creative powers of God. To justify the production of painting, Akbar remarked, “it appears to me as if a painter had quite peculiar means of recognizing God; for a painter in sketching anything that has life, and in devising its limbs, one after the other, must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the Giver of life, and will thus increase in knowledge.”[9] His earliest commission of manuscript is an anthology of short stories, Tutinama or Tales of Parrot, which was created and read as entertainment. Along with the increasing political stability, more manuscripts were created as a result of Akbar’s direct patronage, such as Hamzanama, an adventure story of Amir Hamza, the paternal uncle of the Prophet; and Razmnama or Book of Wars, a Persian version of great Hindu epic, Mahabharata. The latter manuscript demonstrates Akbar’s will of synthesizing different cultural traditions. At his time, producing a manuscript of indigenous culture suggested the heterogeneous group of viewers that he was assuring his nobles gain the knowledge of Hindu heritage.

Among all the manuscripts commissioned by Akbar, the illustrated history of Akbar’s reign, Akbarnama, is the best example of power operating in the production of manuscript. Abu’l Fazl remarks, “this history is intended to serve as a lesson-book of political science for the instruction of mankind and as a moral treatise for the practical teaching of subjects in the right conduct of life.” Both the history and painting are served as evidence of greatness of Akbar as both a sacred and secular ruler. The opening scene of Akbarnama depicts Akbar captured a cheetah (fig.1), which was first time in his life had ever caught one. The painting shows that the emperor assisting in lifting a cheetah out of a pit. It depicts a hunting expedition in 1560, the year when Akbar withdrew Bayram Khan’s authority and set Panjab in order. This was an essential event in Akbar’s life. Bayram Khan was one of the most powerful figures in Mughal court, and his ambitions led him toward rebellion. Akbar reacted to Bayram Khan’s challenge in 1560 with leaving Agra on a hunting expedition. Without alerting his enemy, he moved to Delhi and forced Bayram Khan out of power. This painting of royal hunting marks Akbar’s control of his empire independent from Bayram Khan, and it also signifies the beginning of a decisive period of Mughal history. The artist emphasizes the emperor’s intimate involvement with the scene by placing him on the ground among his companions. Moreover, Akbar’s skill as a hunter is highlighted. The cheetahs are fierce animals that run very fast, and it is impossible running them down. They have to be lured into dug pits. In the painting, Akbar is depicted to be able to use this hunting method successfully. In Ain-i-Akbari or Constitution of Akbar, Abu’l Fazl recorded numerous hunting styles and tricks. According to the documents, Akbar even invented a new method of hunting cheetahs astonished the most experienced hunters. He made each pit with a trapdoor that prevented animals broke their feet when fell down to the pit.[10] 

1. Akbar Captures a Cheetah in 1560

The painting of Akbar kills a tigress in 1561 (fig. 2) shows the emperor’s bravery and fearlessness in the field. Though guns were commonly used in Akbar’s time, he favored hunting from horseback with swords, bows and arrows.[11] The Ain-i-Akbari describes Akbar does not like tricks, and he prefers to attack straightforwardly. As an imperial ruler, Akbar’s centrality is revealed through the comparison between Akbar and his entourage. The courtiers are depicted being terrified and stiff, whereas Akbar reacts instantly and kills the beast without hesitation. The artist displays that Akbar is calm, brave, fully participated and capable of saving his people when they are in danger.

2. Akbar Kills a Tigress Defending Her Offsprings Near the Fort of Narwar in 1561

The Mughal hunting scenes depict hunting more than an amusement. Abu’l Fazl stresses that Akbar pursued “higher aims” through hunting, “he always makes hunting a means of increasing his knowledge, and besides, uses hunting parties as occasions to enquire, without having first given notice his coming, into the condition of the people and the army.”[12] That is to say, Emperor Akbar wanted to gain knowledge by practicing his hunting skill and patronizing manuscripts of various cultural heritages. His curiosity permeated his entire reign. For the Mughal emperors, hunting was a royal duty at the court. It was an act to demonstrate the emperor’s ability to control the threatening nature, to successfully mobilize resources, to publicize his administrative skills and monitor his territory. A hunting ground is a theatre in which social hierarchy and political networking are staged. Meanwhile, hunting is a warm-up for battle, one example of which is that Akbar began his military campaigns with a hunt expedition in 1564 against Malwa.

3. Akbar Hunts Near Lahore in 1567

Moreover the illustration of a royal hunt is a pictorial space to show Mughals’ Central Asian legacy. The painting Akbar organized near Lahore in 1567 (fig. 3) visibly shows this heritage. The hunt was planned like a military operation in which some 50,000 people were engaged for a month in the style of the Mongol and Timurid hunt.[13] The Mongol qamarqha, or the ring-hunt, was a favorite hunting style for both Mongols and Timurids. For instance, In 1391, Timur ordered a grand hunt organized on this Mongol method of enclosing a large space with a ring of men.[14] Qamarqha was kind of war-game, an opportunity to practice courage and individual skills. Also it was an exercise to develop the coordination and discipline.[15]

Mughals’ Central Asian Legacy

One important component that helps forming the Mughal imperial identity is their connection with Timurids and Mongols. For the great Mughals, their political potency began with a traumatic loss of power and homeland. Babur, the founder of Mughal Empire, entered the region of Hindustan in 1526 in search for territory stability after being forced out of their homeland in Transoxiana. From his own memoirs, Baburnama, homesickness and nostalgia permeate the stories he tells. He tells a lot about the hunting and game in Central Asia. He states that he is half Turkish and half Mongol, and claims himself a descendant of both Chingiz Khan and Timur. Both the Central Asian warlords were considered legitimate rulers of the world. They subordinated their subjects through personal charisma and military leadership.[16] Their successors exalted their rule and magnificence. Thus the lineage of Chingiz Khan and Timur was sacralized, fused with political authority and legitimate kingship. Similarly, Mughal dynasty’s enemy, Safavid Persia connected Safavid power to that of Timurids and claimed Timur visited Ardabil where he had foreseen the rise of the Safavid dynasty. A waqf document described an endowment by Timur for the Safavid family. Like Safavid’s emphasis of the historical connection between the Timurid and Safavid family, this Central Asian legacy and lineage were constantly manipulated by Mughals to establish their imperial identity and produced a political legitimacy that support the power of the Mughal emperors.

Apart from supporting the power of Mughal emperors, the imperial legacy also served as an essential component in the memory of the Great Mughals. Though none of Babur’s descendants was born in his homeland, Transoxiana, the reference to ancestry and the lost homeland constructed the cultural memory and imperial identity of the Mughals. The loyalty to Timur’s charismatic genealogy and the ancestral land confirmed that Mughals were enabling the development of their new identity through countering the sense of loss and displacement. Babur made three attempts to take back Samarqand. Humayun, when he gained the aid of Safavid troops, tried to invade Samarqand in the first place. After being defeated by Uzbek forces, he turned south to his lost territory in Indian subcontinent. Both Akbar and Jahangir had interest in the plan for re-conquest of Transoxiana as their unfulfilled aspiration. Shah Jahan sent his expedition including his son and ten thousand men to conquer their “hereditary territories”.[17] Similar to the first two Mughal emperors, Shah Jahan was unable to regain the region due to the distance from the court and their campaigns in Deccan.

By adopting a Mongol and Timurid hunting method, Mughals reenacted their ancestor’s ceremonial: feast was held, individuals with excellent skill were praised, and organizers gained prestige and influence. Plus, the hunting tradition reinforced the importance of hunting as a means of keeping the army alert and efficient. As a royal duty, the hunt helped Mughals establish a real and powerful imperial rule in the foreign land and explore their relationship to the imperial landscape. By showing the Akbar’s capacity to capture and subdue fierce animals, the hunt cultivated the submission of the nobles, and ensured the hierarchical order of the empire.

(End of Part A)

[1] Ebba Koch, The King of the World: An Imperial Manuscript for the Royal Library Windsor Castle (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997), 15.

[2] Ibid., 131-142.

[3] Jahangir’s love of opium and alcohol exacerbated his cruelty. He was capable of shooting a man on the spot or having him flayed as punishment for a slight misdemeanor or oversight.

[4] Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012, 2.

[5] Barbara Daly Metcalf, Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 263.

[6] Bonnie C Wade, Imaging Sound: An Ethnomusicological Study of Music, Art, and Culture in Mughal India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 14.

[7] Vincent Arthur Smith, Akbar the Great Mogul, 1542-1605 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1917), 428.

[8] Milo Cleveland Beach, Mughal and Rajput Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 26.

[9] Smith, Akbar the Great Mogul, 1542-1605, 428.

[10] Abū al-Fazl ibn Mubārak et al., The Ain I Akbari. Vol. 1 (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1873), 285.

[11] Friedrich Christian Karl Augustus von Noer et al., The Emperor Akbar; A Contribution Towards the History of India in the 16th Century (Patna, India: Academica Asiatica, 1973), 275.

[12] Abu al-Fazl, The Ain I Akbari. Vol. 1, 282.

[13] Abraham Eraly, The Mughal World: Life in India’s Last Golden Age (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2007), 73.

[14] Henry H Howorth, History of the Mongols, From the 9th to the 19th Century (New York: B. Franklin, 1965), 242.

[15] Stephen P Blake, Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India 1639-1739 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 146.

[16] Lisa Balabanlilar, Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire: Memory and Dynastic Politics in Early Modern South and Central Asia (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 7.

[17] Balabanlilar, Imperial Identity in the Mughal Empire: Memory and Dynastic Politics in Early Modern South and Central Asia, 45.

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