Mughal painting as a heterotopic space
In theory, Mughal emperors pursued a policy of religious tolerance and openness to non-shari’a religious ideas, however, an opposite tendency contesting the inclusive tradition was always present. Scholar Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi was one of the opponents against the imperial policy. He insisted the necessity of attack upon the heterodox and the non-Muslim. He criticized Akbar in his letters to the notables and students. When Jahangir ascended the throne, the tension was accelerated by the emperor prisoning Sirhindi. A more critical viewpoint was from theologian Bada’uni. He was strongly opposed to Hindu and Shia sect. In his Muntakhab at-tawarikh, his charge against Akbar’s religious innovation was severe. Plus, in the court, far from harmony and stability, wars of succession happened in every transition of Mughal power, and the imperial power of the rulers were constantly challenged. For example, rivalry between prince Salim and his son Khusrau last from the time of Akbar to Salim’s accession as emperor Jahangir. In the hope of succeeding his grandfather’s throne, Khusrau initiated a rebellion in 1606. Overall, conflicts and oppositions were present throughout the history of Mughal Empire. The utopian visions were brought by the non-shari’a oriented Mughal rulers and partially realized, but cannot be fully achieved.
In such a context, the manuscript painting served as a heterotopic space where an apparent attempt at Mughal utopia was represented. Foucault presented the notion of heterotopia first in a lecture in 1967 pointing out that some places interrupt or subvert the ordinary everyday space, literally “other places”. Heterotopic sites are the actual spaces of difference in which the utopia is effectively enacted. Heterotopic sites are present in every culture, Foucault writes, they can have multiple or changing functions; they can bring together several incompatible things as a microcosm; they can juxtapose time across time or enclose time in an immobile place. In short, heterotopia are spaces of alternative spatial and social relations where difference is both encountered and ordered.
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A Discussion of Space
The hallmarks of the Mughal Empire were the cultural diffusion and religious tolerance. The Mughal emperors, except Aurangzeb believed in harmonious co-existence of Hindu and Muslim. The inclusive religious and political views of the Mughals have shaped the Indian cultural landscape for hundreds of years yet the source of these views is little researched, or they are given full attribution to the forwarding thinking Emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605). Many books have been devoted to the study of his status as a divinely illumined ruler in Akbarnama and Ain-i Akbari, the annual recounting of events of his period. Akbar’s personality and his ideology were carefully examined. He has been identified as the real founder of the Mughal Empire who brought the ideas of religious tolerance and inclusive style of rulership to the vast empire. With a similar emphasis, art historians have drawn attention to Akbar’s intellectual role in the emerging Mughal artistic style and his great influence on the composite culture of the Empire.
However, the relevance of some post-Mongol akhlaq digests for the discussion of medieval Indian politics and rulership cannot be denied. Akhlaq is the most commonly used Islamic term for morality. As the “signs” of God the creator, the akhlaq digests with discourses on ethical virtue provided moral guidance on codes of behavior. One widely read akhlaq circulated in Mughal India was the Nasirean Ethics (Akhlaq-i Nasiri) written by celebrated Muslim philosopher and scientist Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201-1274). The book was one of the most highly esteemed on ethics, economics and politics in the medieval Persianate world. It provided a synthesis of the Greek philosophical tradition and the Islamic view of man and society. Also the book presented an idealistic vision on kingship and civil state. After it was introduced in Mughal India, its social and political norms shaped the structure of Mughal empire building.
By examining Tusi’s idea of creating an ideal Muslim community, this paper will argue for the possibility of a Mughal utopia in medieval India. Historian Monica Juneja explored a number of aspects of the utopian thinking within the space of Mughal visual representation in her article “On the margins of Utopia – One more look at Mughal Painting”. She traced various utopian visions in literature, and attributed the harmonious concord of the Mughal Empire to the European influence and Quranic notions of Paradise. Taking Juneja’s study as a starting point, this paper will use the utopian thinking in Western civilization since Thomas More’s Utopia to explore the impact of Nasirean norms of governance and ideal society on the Mughal conception of utopia. Moreover, the paper aims to discover the Mughal vision of utopian ideal within the space of painting from imperial illustrated manuscript. Distinguished from the utopian notion of an imagined future, this study will point out that Mughal painted realm is a space where the concrete appearance of Nasirean ideals occurred.
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