Mughal Series|Utopian Visions in Mughal Painting [A]

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.[1]

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.[2] 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”.[3] 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.[4] 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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