Mughal Series|An Examination of Mughal Hunting Scenes (Part B Jahangir and Shah Jahan)

Part A Introduction and Akbari hunting images

Hunting Scenes Under Jahangir’s Reign

Unlike his father, Jahangir’s commissions of hunting scenes did not concentrate on actions and movement. Instead, human personalities and individuality are emphasized. Jahangir inherited Akbar’s royal library and workshop, and dismissed a number of painters. His atelier was smaller than that of his father due to his higher standards. To Jahangir, his passion for the observation of the nature affected his artistic taste. His interest in animals and plants was shown in the paintings of his period. He observed the beauty of flowers and the precious birds he saw in Kashmir. He ordered the artists to paint pictures of them. He is considered as the connoisseur among the Mughal rulers. One single artist with greater responsibility in the workshop determined the final appearance of a painting, which made artist’s individuality shown in the painting more possible. Like his predecessors, Jahangir was eager to claim his Timurid heritage. The inscription on a monumental column he erected in 1605 tells Jahangir’s lineage down to Timur. Though during Jahangir’s reign, the empire was stable, the Mughal legitimacy was still needed to be established. Linking his rule to Timurid tradition underlines his divine kingship and undoubted power.

Jahangir is an emperor with a complex personality. He was a keen naturalist, who studied animals and precious birds when he was traveling in his kingdom. Two cranes were taken to his court at the age of one month, and given the names of Layla and Majnun who are the tragic lovers of Persian literature. Jahangir devoted himself studying the cranes from their daily routine, mating, to the hatching of the eggs, and all details were carefully recorded. On the other side, he loved killing animals. In 1617, he listed 28,532 animals killed by him at the age of fifty, including mountain goat, sheep and deer, wolves, wild fox and boar, pigeons, hawks, pelicans, a total of 86 lions, 3473 crows and 10 crocodiles.[18]

The painting of Jahangir showing his skill to Prince Karan depicts an incident happened in 1615 (fig. 4). Jahangir and the Rajput prince Karan heard the news of a lioness near a lake. Karan asked the emperor if he could shoot in the eye of the animal. Jahangir shot the lioness in her eye so he was not ashamed in front of the Rajput prince. The lioness is shown lying on the ground with one hand on its eye indicating the wound made by Jahangir. Prince Karan shows his respect to the emperor by touching his turban. The image depicts Jahangir and Karan on their elephants which are shown restless when encountering the ferocious lioness. Thus the painting acts as a message to visualize Jahangir’s skill and heroism of an emperor to his loyal.

Jahanginr showing his hunting skills to Rana Karan post card obverse.jpg
4. Jahangir Showing His Hunting Skill to Prince Karan

In the painting, the centrality of the emperor is realized by using the gaze effect. Jahangir attracts the gaze of his courtiers from the upper right, to the extreme right, way down to the bottom of the folio, and even the prince Karan to Jahangir’s right hand side. The central focus on the emperor highlights his status as Nur-ud-din or “light of the faith”, a new title of honor he chose, which linked him with the great light, the sun. The artist uses a deliberate manner to direct the gazes of courtiers toward the emperor, and more importantly, to direct the eyes of the viewers. The network of gazes in solar pattern enables the viewers to follow a pictorial organization that help them reading the correct narrative. The focal point of the painting will not be misread. The authority of Jahangir is not going to be changed with the painting copied and spread throughout the empire.

The Mughal sovereign dominated the cultural life of the empire by disseminating the royal manuscripts. Through the illustrated manuscripts, the emperors disseminated information and perceptions that they needed to communicate to the nobles in his imperial hierarchy. This method played a crucial role in Mughal court. The emperors had to rule a group of people whose identities could be defined in various ways. For example, the obedient nobles identified themselves as Mughals, but the Timur’s descendants never referred to this identity. They retained their identity as Timurid Turks. For the Indians, their territory was taken by foreigners, and their suspicion upon the new rulers needed to be eliminated. In terms of religious tradition, since Akbar, the Mughal rulers sought to reconcile the tension between the Muslim and Hindu. The audience for the manuscripts was an exclusive but crucial one, so the control on the production and distribution is a means to control communication and imperial ideology. In Mughal period, a newly enthroned Mughal emperor visited the library to affirm his reign by adding his signature on the manuscripts as the new ownership of the volume. Through the imperial system, Jahangir’s image as a ruler with divine power must be read by his nobles and acknowledged by his subjects.

Shah Jahani Hunting Scenes

5. Shah Jahan Hunting

The hierarchical principle continues into the Shah Jahan period and transformed into a more formalized style. The painting of Shah Jahan hunting antelopes (fig. 5) is a fine example of how the pictorial principle enables the emperor’s supreme power. The scene shows Shah Jahan hunting with a group of particularly powerful nobles including his son Dara-Shikoh and two prominent attendants Salabat Khan and Asalat Khan. The adjacent text tells the emperor shot forty antelopes without wasting one bullet. The artist places Shah Jahan sitting on the hunting ground, but gives no intimate relationship between him and his courtiers. It is the group of nobles that appears to gaze directly to the left side of the page, not at the antelopes or the emperor. Each gaze parallels the other, and goes beyond the frame. In the distance, the farmers at work and herds of animals give the sense of peacefulness of Shah Jahan’s reign. Vast spaces are frequently incorporated in the painting of Shah Jahan’s period, and the treatment of landscape is influenced by European interest. Naturalism is apparently shown throughout the painting. The trees and bushes cover the ground, and the rising sun, low and bright on the horizon. The hillock scheme is used by the artist to create a continuous wide vista from the foreground into the depth, which suggests infinite space in the real scene.[19] The main characters are in profile in the middle ground demonstrating the hierarchical principle. Shah Jahan’s glorification is given by the halo behind his head. The halo also symbolizes his power as a sun king. The hunting method he used was a small informal one with a few men and well organized known as the drive hunt. In the painting, a huntsman in the foreground keeps the game within the range of the Khassban or the royal gun. Shah Jahan is sitting on the rug, neither chasing nor fighting, just waiting his huntsman drive the game carefully and slowly in his direction. Violence and killing are absent, and harmonious mood is given by the scene.

Shah Jahan was granted the title of Shah Jahan or king of the world in 1617 by his father Jahangir to honor his victories in Deccan. After rebelled his father Jahangir and murdered his brother Khusrau, he became the emperor of Mughal Empire in 1628. As a patron, Shah Jahan is best known for his magnificent buildings, especially the Taj Mahal and the palace complex of Agra, Lahore, and Delhi. He was also a patron of jewelries, jade objects, metalworks, and textiles. In the eighth regnal year, Shah Jahan commissioned the official history of his reign, padshanama, from Muhammad Amin Qazwini. As opposed to the enthusiastic documents of his predecessors, Shah Jahan’s text is a sheer official statement. Qazwini’s text covered the first ten years of the emperor’s reign. Abdul-Hamid Lahawri, who was given the project after Qazwini, used the finished text as the basis and added a volume covering the next ten years. Muhammad Waris wrote the third volume of Shah Jahan’s history covering events up to 1656. Only a section of the Lahawri’ copy has survived intact which is the first third of the narrative, and the manuscript is restored in The Royal Library, Windsor Castle. The first two illustrations of padshanama are the double shamsa or image of the sun. In Ain-i-Akbari, Abu’l Fazl already made the connection between light and royalty, “the shamsa is a divine light, which God directly transfers to kings, without the assistance of men; and kings are fond of external splendor, because they consider it an image of the Divine glory.”[20] As the beginning image of such an important manuscript produced in Shah Jahan period, double shamsa signifies the emperor’s divine character. Shah Jahan proclaimed his divinity by magnifying his worldly and otherworldly glory in the illustrated manuscript.

6. Shah Jahan Hunting Lions at Burhanpur

Shah Jahan regulated art strictly, and rarely revealed his personal enthusiasms in text and painting. The artistic components, such as the composition, the line, and the treatment of landscape were perfectly controlled. All his concern is to assert his power. A representation of Shah Jahan hunting lions shows a visible emblem of power (fig. 6). The prominent figures on three elephants occupy the middle ground, and are in hierarchically correct profile. The netted enclosure separates the middle ground from foreground where identical figures of attendants are placed. The emperor with a halo behind his head accompanied by the princes on both his sides is facing a lion, a lioness and two cubs. The lion is only looking at the emperor and threatening him. The successful lion hunt was welcomed as a good omen for the outcome of the Deccan Campaign, and it was celebrated with high ceremony. Francois Bernier, a French physician and traveler recorded, “it is considered a favorable omen when the king kills a lion, so is the escape of that animal portentous of infinite evil to the state.”[21] If the animal escapes, it will be an indication of unlucky. According to Bernier, the dead lion was brought to the emperor who is sitting on the throne surrounded by nobles, where the carcass was measured, and the details of the kill, including the size of the lion, the length of the teeth, entered in the records for the royal archives.[22]

By the time of Shah Jahan, the empire was stable in its economy and the Mughals had established themselves firmly as the imperial rulers, so their attitude toward hunting had been changed. The painting of Shah Jahan hunting antelopes shows he used the safe drive hunt. The miniature of hunting lions depicts Shah Jahan and his courtiers used a net for hunting the ferocious animals. The strongly knotted net demonstrates the changing philosophy of bravery and power. Shah Jahan employed a safer method to hunt emblematic animals. The display of bravery in a hunting field was replaced by the interpretation of the hunt as a metaphor of good government influenced by the concept of adab. Adab, a concept of what a person should know, be and do to learn the Muslim ideal of the harmonious life. It refers to the exemplification of moral qualities.[23] An emperor in a position of power should follow the discipline and regulate his behavior with correct knowledge. A hunting camp is a place where symbolized subordination to the emperor is ought to be shown, and the emperor’s staged behavior is taken as the exemplar. In a war-like qamarqha, the rulers are reckless and unguarded, and it indicates their lack of self-control and good judgment.

Under the influence of

7. The Siege of Qandahar

One missing component from Mughal hunting scenes is the female member of the ruling family. Some of the library’s components were located in harem, the private area of the royal palace, so the literary women were able to have access to the manuscripts. That means, the audience for the illustrations was not only the men, female viewers must have gained the influence from the paintings. In terms of hunting, elite women of the Timurids and Mughals hunted from horseback like the noble men. Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s beloved wife, was a brave imperial hunter and took the role of protector of the subjects.[25] She accompanied Jahangir several times on hunting expeditions. Once she shot four tigers with six shots.[26] However, their hunting skill and fiery shots were not depicted in the painting at the time. The women’s contribution to their husbands and the vast empire had been ignored.


In this article, I explored the images of three Mughal emperors: Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. The close examination of the hunt as a behavior of Mughals reveals its multiple functions. It is a metaphor for sovereignty, a measure of social status, and a means to practice rule. By tracing the development of Mughal hunting scenes, the dynamics of political meaning and imperial ideology have been investigated. On the succession of Akbar, he identified himself as the secular and spiritual guide for his subjects to consolidate his power. The image of Akbar is shown as a dangerous male and protective ruler. The subjects need the strength of the emperor, and they need him to save them from the violence and danger. Through hunting scenes, he was eager to convey his fearful grandeur and his capacity to lay his power on a heterogeneous group of people on a foreign land. Jahangir also used hunting scene to create the public image he wanted and needed. His imperial identity had been glorified by linking himself with the divine light, the sun through the compositional structure guiding the eye of the viewer to read the central focus correctly. Under the reign of Shah Jahan, the pictorial order emphasized more on the subordination of the nobles. The hierarchical order had been standardized in his paintings, and actions and bloodiness are omitted. Therefore, the act of hunting had a ritual character. The hunting ground is depicted as tightly organized and carefully controlled. The prey is deliberately selected. Shooting forty antelopes down and one shot for each without another shot demonstrates the emperor’s skill inherited from his ancestors. The lions are explicit emblem to glorify Shah Jahan further by highlighting the divine kinship. Mughal loyalty to the Central Asian legacy shaped their imperial ideology. They adopted Mongol and Timurid hunting method to articulate the ideology of kingship. Their representations of themselves as legitimate and perfect rulers were not supposed to change.

[18] Blake, Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India 1639-1739, 216.

[19] Koch, The King of the World: An Imperial Manuscript for the Royal Library Windsor Castle, 138-40.

[20] Abu al-Fazl, The Ain I Akbari. Vol. 1, 50.

[21] Mahesh Rangarajan et al., Environmental Issues in India: A Reader (New Delhi: Pearson Education, 2009), 54.

[22] Koch, The King of the World: An Imperial Manuscript for the Royal Library Windsor Castle, 110.

[23] Metcalf, Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam, 2.

[24] Koch, The King of the World: An Imperial Manuscript for the Royal Library Windsor Castle, 53.

[25] Thomas T Allsen, The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 181.

[26] Soma Mukherjee, Royal Mughal Ladies and Their Contributions (New Delhi: Gyan Pub. House, 2001), 99.


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