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  • Alex Coutinho

Jahangir:A Naturalist

“The Glory of God is to conceal a thing and the glory of the king is to find it out.” Solomon (Proverb 25:2)


The above statement stands completely true for the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1605-27) whose curiosity to unravel the mysteries of nature drove him not only to vividly describe the natural world, in his memoirs ‘The Jahangirnama’, but also to order his artists to make accurate paintings of the natural world. These two aspects -description and depiction- went hand-in-hand. The interaction of the Mughals with nature started with Babur, by his descriptions of the flora and fauna of Hindustan, and culminated in Jahangir. Jahangir had two master painters for natural studies in his atelier: Ustad Mansur, Nadir al-Asr and Abu al-Hasan, Nadir az-Zaman.


The qualities that Jahangir embody are similar to those that Sir Francis Bacon strongly believed should be possessed by a king in order to rule justly and wisely. Bacon's ideal king of New Atlantis, King Salomon, who is not only a law-giver but a founder of the Society of Salomon’s House, an institution “dedicated to the works and creatures of God”, “for the finding out of the true nature of all things”. The ruler who is empowered by learning and scientific research becomes capable of understanding the true nature of all things. These are the qualities that one can find in Jahangir(Fig 1). Jahangir’s obsession with measurement and experimentation in order to (in)validate the existing traditional beliefs reveals that he was an empirical and rational mind. For instance, in Rawalpindi, when the locals told him about their fear of harmful creatures in a pool, Jahangir ordered a sheep and one of his servants to be thrown into it and when both returned unharmed; he proudly recorded his triumph over the villagers’ credulity.


Figure 1. Potrait of Emperor Jahangir holding a crown, c. 1620, British Museum
Figure 1. Potrait of Emperor Jahangir holding a crown, c. 1620, British Museum

Jahangir’s experiments were also a legacy of his father who used empirical research to find out about the true nature of God; while Jahangir tried to find about the marvellous creatures created by god. He was deeply interested in animals. This curiosity, it has been suggested, was not so much scientific but rather driven by an aesthetic sense. Dissection of animals was an important part of his experiments. He also skinned two sheep and exposed their carcasses at two different places in order to determine the air quality index. In 1617, while travelling to Ujjain, Jahangir observed a peculiar palm tree whose trunk had been forked into two branches. He ordered it to be measured and painted(Fig 2).


If we observe the painting closely, we can discern a platform around the tree. This was a Mughal phenomenon called ‘The Imprinting of nature’, which not only defined it as a territory of the Mughals but also allegorically asserted their supremacy over the natural world. The emperor was particularly interested in crossbreeding animals of different species. In 1619, he ordered that two-wild male Makhor goats be mated with seven Barbary goats from Arabia. The result was a huge success and the emperor grew so fond of the offsprings that he always kept them around him.

Figure 2. Jahangir has a palm tree with a forked trunk measured in 1617 near Ujjain, illustration of the Jahangirnama, opaque water colour on paper, 34.3×22 cm, Rampur, Raza Library
Fig 2

When Muqarrab Khan presented himself at court with the ‘rarities’ he had bought from the Portuguese, Jahangir records it: ‘He had brought very strange and unusual creatures. I had not seen them before. No one knew what their names were…I wrote of them and ordered the artists to draw their likeness in the jahangirmana so that the astonishment that one has while hearing of them would increase by seeing them.’ One of the animals was a monkey of strange and wonderful form. The animal was ‘lower than a monkey but taller than a fox. Its hair is like the wool of a sheep and its colour like that of ashes'.


A painting that depicts Muqarrab Khan presenting the animals to the emperor, depicts this strange monkey. It has been suggested that this monkey was, perhaps, a Madagascaran lemur and if that holds true; it makes Jahangir’s description, the earliest known description of a lemur.

Jahangir was also fond of birds. He even had two pet saras cranes, Laila and Majnun, under the care of a eunuch.


Moreover, one of the earliest, and most accurate, depiction of the, now extinct, Mauritius Dodo was done by Ustad Mansur, Jahangir’s master painter(Fig 3)

Figure 3. Dodo, attributed to Mansur, detail of a collage with bird studies, opaque water colour on paper, entire painting 15, 3×26 cm, St Petersburgh album, Academy of Sciences, St Petersburgh.
Fig.3

We can match some descriptions by Jahangir with the surviving paintings. For instance, Jahangir describes a falcon which he received as a gift from Shah Abbas of Persia:


‘What can I write of the beauty of the bird’s colour? It had black markings, and every feather on its wings, back and sides were extremely beautiful. Since it was rather unusual I ordered Master Mansur the painter who has been entitled Nadirul’ asr Rarity of the Age to draw its likeness to be kept.’


Later, during Shah Jahan’s period, the motif of birds on trees was translated into stone and used as parchin kari decoration in Shah Jahan’s throne wall in the Red Fort. Jahangir was also fascinated by plants and flowers. Mughal artists based their studies of flowers and plants, including those which were native to their own environment, on the illustrations of the great European scientific plant books. For instance, Mansurs lilies were modelled on drawings by Peter van der Borcht and the illustrated plant books of Carolos Clusius, Rembertus Dodaneous and Matheaus Lobelius. The Mughal artists not only copied European flower styles but adopted their principle of composition like the front and side views of the blossoms, the progression from bud to full blossom to withered bloom on one plant, and the arrangement of the blossoms to display the botanical details of stamen and carpels. This was combined with a sense of movement in the petals, leaves and stems. Ustad Mansur’s famous tulips could be the earliest botanical illustration of tulipa linifolia Regal, based on the above mentioned principles.


Another favourite of the Mughals was Fritillaria imperialis, or crown imperial. Jahangir described one he saw during a trip: “There was one strange flower in particular with an odd shape. It had five or six orange-coloured flowers blooming with their heads down, and several leaves were poking out from inside the flowers. It was something like a pineapple [he means obviously the topping crown of leaves]. The flowers of Kashmir are beyond counting or enumeration. Which ones shall I write about? How many can one write about? Only those that are really special can be recorded”


No painting of Jahangir’s painters has survived, which matches the description given by him. However we do find a similar painting that matches the description in the later Dara Shikoh album, the only difference is of the colour being unrealistically pink which was the new trend of ‘Shahjani’ style of sequestering the accurate botanical colours to create a somewhat artistic effect.


The trip mentioned above was made to Kashmir in March 1620. The Mughals were extremely mobile kings and their court was ‘peripatetic’. Kashmir was a favourite retreat for Jahangir, especially during the summer months, as the heat of Agra was unbearable for him {partly due to his excessive drinking}. In Kashmir, Jahangir records that ‘the earliest fruit to mature in Kashmir is the Ashkin. It is smaller than a sour cherry. It is much better in terms of flavour and delicacy. I commanded that henceforth the ashkin should be called koshkin’. The emperor even had the whole valley remeasured in order to check the numbers given in the Akbarnama.

Figure 14. Terrestrial globe with India in the centre and in alignment with the equatorial axis

All these aspects reveal that Jahangir was seriously devoted to the study of plants, birds and animals. He idealizes himself, through his paintings, as a just and wise king, similar to Bacon’s ideal of Salomonic Kingship: One who rules over not just the human world, but also the animal world. The globe with pacified animals (dad-u-dam) in the Malik Ambar painting symbolizes the just rule of the emperor. This aspect of pacified animals (dad-u-dam) revolves around three allegories: the rule of King Solomon; Majnun, who wanders in the wilderness with wild animals and Orpheus, the mythical hero who pacifies wild animals with his music. Jahangir was indeed one of the most intriguing Mughal Emperors.


References


JAHANGIR, TUZUK-I JAHANGIRI OR MEMOIRS OF JAHANGIR, TRANS.BY A.ROGERS, ED.BY H.BEVERIDGE

KOCH, E. (2009). JAHANGIR AS FRANCIS BACON'S IDEAL OF THE KING AS AN OBSERVER AND INVESTIGATOR OF NATURE.

JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL ASIATIC SOCIETY, 19(3), 293-338.

KOCH, E. SHAH JAHAN AND ORPHEUS,REPRINT IN MUGHAL ART AND IMPERIAL IDEOLOGY.

KOCH, E. SHAH JAHAN AND ORPHEUS: THE PIETRE DURE DECORATION AND THE PROGRAMME OF THE THRONE IN THE HALL OF PUBLIC AUDIENCES AT THE RED FORT OF DELHI.

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BACON, F. ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING AND NEW ATLANTIS (1966).

BALABANLILAR, LISA. THE EMPEROR JAHANGIR AND THE PURSUIT OF PLEASURE. JOURNAL OF ROYAL ASIATIC SOCIETY, 19(3), 173-186.

JARMAN, PETER J. ZOOLOGICAL PIONEER: WAS THE MUGHAL EMPEROR JAHANGIR THE FIRST SCIENTIST TO DESCRIBE A MADAGASCAN LEMUR?, JOURNAL OF THE INDIAN OCEAN REGION, 16:2, 202-211.

NUMANI, M. A. EMPEROR JAHANGIR’S METHOD OF OBSERVATION AND APPROACHES TO INVESTIGATION OF KASHMIR ECOLOGY.

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