Tag Archives: Mughals

Photo: Mughal painting of Christ and the Virgin Mary

24 Dec


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Image: Portrait of an artist…Abul Hasan

28 Sep

…the frowning face of the young Abul Hasan, who would become Jahangir’s favourite painter, painted by Daulat. From the Gulshan Album, 1600

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Also from Gulshan Album, Prince Selim:


And the illustrations in the Gulshan Album of the interest in Christianity wide-spread in Jahangir’s court:



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Image: Mughal Turkey

23 Nov

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Turkey. Shah Jahan era. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Though never invested a very great deal of emotional energy in Thanksgiving, I thought this Shah Jahan era miniature was beautiful, and maybe one more reason to not eat the bird: ’cause it looks better than it tastes.

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Indian carpets and comfort in Pergamonmusuem, Berlin

20 Nov

Two images from Pictures of Comfort and Design: Carpets in Indian Miniature Painting:

“Recline in a comfortable place, an atmosphere of general well-being: nowhere do carpets play such a large role as in the Islamic world. In a region where furniture was little known for centuries, carpets allowed for relaxed sitting and sleeping. At the same time, they served as an important representational element and created an impressive ambience at courtly events.”

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 4.09.29 PM.pngThe Mughal Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605–27) with his wife on an imperial carpet with a lattice and flower pattern, probably from Kashmir, India or Lahore, present-day Pakistan, early 17th century, opaque watercolour and gold on paper © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Islamische Kunst / Ingrid Geske

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 4.15.26 PMThe Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah (r. 1720–48) on a grey carpet with green scrolling vines and pink blossoms, India, first half of the 18th century, opaque watercolour and gold on paper © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Islamische Kunst / Ingrid Geske

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Image: Mirza Nili, a son of Shah Alam II,with his sons Mirza Kamran & Mirza Humayun.

31 Oct

By the family workshop of Ghulam Ali Khan, Delhi c1810.  From

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Taj Mahal — spoken like a true nationalist: “…we will change this history…”

30 Oct

Taj MahalSome members of India’s ruling Hindu rightwing party claim the Taj Mahal does not reflect Indian culture. Photograph: Pawan Sharma/AP

From the Guardian: Hardline Hindu nationalists step up campaign against Taj Mahal.”

Article doesn’t make clear what BJP nationalists want exactly.  Ban images of the building?  Make people stop looking at it?  Don’t think, الحمد لله, anyone wants it torn down yet.  But the money quotes are priceless:

“Taj Mahal should have no place in Indian history,” he said, claiming Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the mausoleum for his deceased wife, had “wanted to wipe out Hindus”.

“If these people are part of our history, then it is very sad and we will change this history,” he added.

And a cool mad-wacky history narrative almost as funny as that of the Turkish Republic:

Fuelling the controversy are the writings of a fringe historian, PN Oak, whose works were dismissed for decades but are enjoying new prominence among Hindu hardliners.

Oak claims that much of the world was once ruled by an ancient Hindu empire, that the English language is a dialect of Sanskrit, and that Westminster Abbey is, in reality, a temple to the deity Shiva.

The Taj too, he argued, was originally a Shiva temple built by the maharajah of Jaipur, and initially named the “Tejo Mahalaya”.

His theory has been cited by several BJP legislators this month to cast doubt on the provenance of the monument. A dozen students were arrested at the Taj last week for offering prayers to Shiva on its grounds.

Frustrating to me though, that whenever anybody steps up to the plate to take on the myth of “tolerant Islam” it’s always dopes and freaks like these.

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Will Dalrymple in Kashmir

23 Oct

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 11.46.24 AMThe recently restored Pattar Masjid Srinagar, 1623 Built by Nur Jahan for Jahangir

 William Dalrymple ( ) is apparently on vacation in Kashmir, and loading his Twitter account with gorgeous photos.  Check them out.

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Shah-e-Hamedan Srinagar From the Jhelum waterfront

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Nishat Bagh Srinagar October light

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Eid al-Adha

26 Oct

The above “carpet,” by Pakistani artist Rashid Rana, is made up of thousands…tens of thousand? hundreds?…of photographs taken of animals being slaughtered* in homes, streets and slaughterhouses all over Karachi.  To be honest, I don’t know if all these photos were taken on Eid al-Adha or just over a period of time, but it seemed appropriate to the day.  Eid al-Adha, known as Kurban Bayrami in Turkey and in the Balkans, Eid e Qorban in the Iranian world, commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son (Ismail, right? not Isaac…) according to God’s will.  It also marks the end of the Hajj.  Anyone who can afford to,  sacrifices an animal and distributes part of the meat to neighbors, relatives and the poor.  I think for many Muslims it’s the major holiday of the year.  It’s always struck me as a feast that had some of the mixed solemnity-joy of Easter (aside from just the obvious element of the sacrifice of the Son), as opposed to the candied, Christmasy festivesness of Eid al Fitr.

(Kurban, which I assume is an Arabic word, is the source of the beautiful Farsi expression “Qorban-e-to” “your sacrifice” — meaning “you’re welcome” or “at your service” or “my pleasure” — I’m all yours; do with me as you wish…here’s my throat…)

Below is a detail of Rana’s piece:

I wish there were a more close-up shot of it available somewhere.  It was beautiful.

It was shown here in 2010 at the Asia Society as part of an exhibit of contemporary Pakistani artists called Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art from Pakistan, which was really fascinating (starting with the title).

Some of my other favorite pieces at this exhibit was the work of Imran Qureishi, who does Mughal-style, Shah Jahan period-type portraits (one of my great aesthetic weaknesses) with figures from contemporary Pakistani reality:

But perhaps the most interesting pieces for me were from Faiza Butt, an artist born in Lahore but now working in London.  Her discussion of her work should be checked out:

“My choice of medium was a reactionary response to my years as a student at the Slade School of Art, where large, physical, muscular and “technologically advanced” work held more worth than contemplative intellectual responses. [my emphasis]  I started to create ambitious, highly detailed drawings with ink pens that rival “spectacles” of work and focus on art historical and gender issues.”

At the the exhibit were displayed two collage pieces she did out of the famous Taliban photos discovered by German photographer Thomas Dworzak in photo studios in Kandahar in 2001.  The photographers were happy to give them to him; ‘most of them are dead” one said.  Butt called the pieces she made out of these photos: “Get out of my dreams – I and II”:

I still can’t figure out what she means.  “Get out”?  “Dreams”?  I think there are stunning ideas behind these pieces and not the least stunning was the title.  Is the strange eroticism of these men, with their khol-lined eyes out of a Perso-Indian opium dream, what draws and compels her?  Or are they just Taliban monsters, whom she wants not out of her dreams, but out of her nightmares?  I had seen the photographs before of course — American journalist Titan Jon Lee Anderson has compiled them into a beautiful edition (below) with an intro by Dworzak, after they first appeared in The New Yorker — but thanks to Butt, they got into my head in a new, strange and beautiful way.

A wildly divergent tangent from Eid al-Adha, eh?  Or maybe not.  Good feast to all.

Also the feast of St. Demetrius today, by the way, Dmitriy Solunskiy — my patron.


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*Sorry for the PETA girls — “slaughter” here has absolutely no moral or ethical connotations for me; it’s just how you kill animals.  When applied to human beings, of course, it has a different meaning, though I know they’re both on the same ethical plane for you.

The Destruction of Delhi — Dalrymple (final)

3 Jul

Bahadur Shah Zafar enthroned

Bahadur Shah Zafar ended up being the last of the Mughal emperors.  Already along in years when the Uprising began, he became, due to the enormous symbolic power the Mughal Shahenshah still commanded, the reluctant leader of a revolution that, for even a younger and seasoned warrior – of whom he was neither – would have been a daunting force to control, command and direct.  The original rebelling Hindu and Muslim sipahis (sepoys) had gravitated towards Delhi as the symbolic center of northern India.  They were soon joined by random teams of jihadis, groups of what Dalrymple calls “Wahabbis,” though always in quotes so I don’t know quite know who he means, and the usual motley crew of Pashtuns down from Afghanistan that never miss a good fight if word of one reaches them.  This alienated many Hindu factions in no good time and, bent as many of these groups were on plunder as much as Holy War, they ended up being as great a curse on the poor, long-suffering Delhiwallahs as any of the other players involved.

Zafar lived to see most of his family murdered.  Of his, I believe, thirty-one sons – who participated in the uprising from roles of active leadership to not at all – only two survived: three teenagers were shot in the heart at point blank range; two of the more ’implicated’ sons of similar age were put before a firing squad ordered to fire low in the guts for maximum pain; the rest hanged – along with all the other male notables of his court, including Hindus.  Certain amuck British officers seem to have spent days running around the ruins of the city, shooting anyone that looked even remotely “mirza”-like, or even Muslim, or just once rich.  The hangings seem to have lasted for weeks, with a cessating intervention finally coming from London itself.  Zafar was exiled first to the Andaman Islands and then to Burma, where he died in 1862.

It was the effective end of the Mughal aristocracy and the complete wiping out of an historic dynasty; a twentieth-century style liquidation of a social class; given the comparative dimensions of the societies involved, it was surely a purge of Bolshevik proportions and equally paranoid and crazy.  Dalrymple artfully carries the consequences of these events into modernity for us.


Zafar (below)


But while Zafar was certainly never cut out to be a heroic or revolutionary leader, he remains, like his ancestor the Emperor Akbar, an attractive symbol of Islamic civilization at its most tolerant and pluralistic.  He himself was a notable poet and calligrapher; his court contained some of the most talented artistic and literary figures in modern South Asian history; and the Delhi he presided over was undergoing one of its great periods of learning, self-confidence, communal amity and prosperity.  He is certainly a strikingly liberal and likeable figure when compared to the Victorian Evangelicals whose insensitivity, arrogance and blindness did much to bring the Uprising of 1857 down upon both their own heads and those of the people and court of Delhi, engulfing all of northern India in a religious war of terrible violence.

Above all, Zafar always put huge emphasis on his role as a protector of Hindus and the moderator of Muslim demands.  He never forgot the central importance of preserving the bond between his Hindu and Muslim subjects, which he always recognized was the central stitching that held his city together.  Throughout the Uprising, his refusal to alienate his Hindu subjects by subscribing to the demands of the jihadis was probably his single most consistent policy.

There was nothing inevitable about the demise and extinction of the Mughals, as the sepoys’ dramatic surge towards the court of Delhi showed.  But in the years to come, as Muslim prestige and learning sank, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims would increasingly grow apart, as British policies of divide and rule found willing collaborationists among the chauvinists of both faiths.  The rip in the closely woven fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, slowly widened into a great gash, and at Partition in 1947 finally broke in two.  As the Indian Muslim elite emigrated en masse to Pakistan, the time would soon come when it would be almost impossible to imagine that Hindu sepoys could ever have rallied to the Red Fort and the standard of a Muslim emperor, joining with their Muslim brothers in an attempt to revive the Mughal Empire.

Following the crushing of the Uprising, and the uprooting and slaughter of the Delhi court, the Indian Muslims themselves also divided into two opposing paths: one, championed by the great Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to West, and believed that Indian Muslims could revive their fortunes only by embracing Western learning.  With this in mind, Sir Sayyid founded his Aligarh Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) and tied to recreate Oxbridge in the plains of Hndustan.

The other approach, taken by survivors of the old Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was to reject the West in toto and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.  For this reason, disillusioned pupils of the school of Shah Waliullah, such as Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi – who in 1857 had briefly established an independent Islamic state north of Meerut at Shamli, in the Doab – founded an influential but depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, one-hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital.  With their backs to the wall, they reacted against what the founders saw as the degenerate and rotten ways of the old Mughal elite.  The Deoband madrasa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum.*

*(It was by no means a total divide: religious education at Aligarh, for example, was in the hands of the Deobandis.)

One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.

Today, West and East again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as religious war.  Jihadis again fight what they regard as a defensive action against their Christian enemies, and again innocent women, children and civilians are slaughtered.  As before, Western Evangelical politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies as the role of “incarnate fiends” and conflate armed resistance to invasion and occupation with “pure evil.”  Again, Western countries, blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wilder world, feel aggrieved to be attacked – as they interpret it – by mindless fanatics.

Against this bleak dualism, there is much to value in Zafar’s peaceful and tolerant attitude to life; and there is also much to regret in the way that the British swept away and rooted out the late Mughal’s pluralistic and philosophically composite civilization.

As we have seen in our own time, nothing threatens the liberal and moderate aspect of Islam so much as aggressive Western intrusion and interference in the East, just as nothing so radicalizes the ordinary Muslim and feeds the power of the extremists: the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have, after all, often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined.  There are clear lessons here.  For, in the celebrated words of Edmund Burke, himself a fierce critic of Western aggression in India, those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.

Zafar’s two surviving sons, who shared his Burmese exile with him.


Agha Shahid Ali: “After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi”

Lear cries out “You are men of stones”

as Cordelia hangs from a broken wall.


I step into Chandni Chowk, a street once

strewn with jasmine flowers

for the Empress and the royal women

who bought perfumes from Isfahan,

fabrics from Dacca, essence from Kabul,

glass bangles from Agra.


Beggars now live here in tombs

of unknown nobles and forgotten saints

while hawkers sell combs and mirrors

outside a Sikh temple.  Across the street,

a theater is showing a Bombay spectacular.


I think of Zafar, poet and Emperor,

being led through this street

by British soldiers, his feet in chains,

to watch his sons hanged.


In exile he wrote:

“Unfortunate Zafar

spent half his life in hope,

the other half waiting.

He begs for two yards of Delhi for burial.”


He was exiled to Burma, buried in Rangoon.  


Last known photograph of Bahadur Shah Zafar


I’d like to heartily and gratefully thank Mr. Dalrymple (below) for his permission to reproduce such an extensive piece of his work.  Usually permission is hard to obtain or you get no answer at all.  When I wrote Mr. Dalrymple, however, he shot an email back at me within minutes saying nothing but: “Go for it.”  Shukriya, kheyli moteshakeram, teshekur, and thanks again.

 “After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi” reprinted from The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems by Agha Shahid Ali. English translation copyright © 2009 by Daniel Hall. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Watercolor of the Jama Masjid and old Delhi from 1852


Favorite Blogs: The Delhi Wallah

10 May

The Delhi Wallah: Your gateway to alternate Delhi, the city of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Arundhati Roy is one of my favorite sub-continental blogs and even has the endorsement of the great historian and travel writer Walter Dalrymple: “The Delhi Walla is Delhi’s most idiosyncratic and eccentric website, and reflects a real love of this great but under-loved and underrated city.”  The work of the assumedly pseudonymed Mayank Austen Soofi, the blog really is written with the true tenderness that only a great city fallen on slightly hard times can inspire.  One thinks of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, written about his youth in that city before it became the ISTANBUL! it’s become since the 1990’s.

Delhi’s Jama Masjid in the 1890’s

Anyone who knows me, and some who don’t but might have already picked it out from this blog, know that I’m interested in all of India and even engage in certain Hindu practices and rites but that my true fascination is the Mughal culture of the northern Doab heartland.  This comes from — just among myriad things — the composite, deeply syncretic and super-elegant aesthetic of that culture and, more personally, from a deep affinity for lost worlds and for the dignity maintained in the face of the most tragic circumstances under which Indian Islam, much like the Byzantines, not only laboured but continued to flourish for so long.

Bahadur Shah, the last reigning member of the Mughal dynasty

When I read Dalrymple’s masterpiece, The Last Mughal, The Fall of A Dynasty 1857 I was left shell-shocked, not just by the sheer scale of the Indian Rebellion’s violence, but by the mindless, post-conflict destruction of the vindictive and obviously terrified Brits, determined to teach Indian Muslims a lesson for their “mutiny.”  Even the outer walls of the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid itself were saved at the eleventh hour by the orders of more intelligent superiors.  It makes my head spin to think that had the cooler heads that the British so pride themselves on prevailed, Delhi today would still be a showcase of Muslim art and architecture on a par with Isfahan and Cairo or even Istanbul.

The Red Fort in Delhi, once the largest palace complex in the world, eighty per cent of which was dynamited by the British after the Indian rebellion was crushed. (click)

One can read about how upper-class Muslim life in north India proudly soldiered on into the twentieth century in books like Ahmed Ali’s beautiful Twilight in Delhi or made it through the trauma of Partition and modernity in films like Garm Hawa and Sardari Begum.  (For a fairly insightful look — but one that doesn’t really tackle the most radical questions — at Indian Muslim life in the cinema seeIslamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema by Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen but all these can’t help but strike a certain elegiac tone.

But…what I love about the Delhi Wallah is what detailled coverage he brings you of how alive and well Muslim life and culture in Delhi still are: mushairas, qawwali gatherings, celebrations at sufi tombs — and not just Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s — old ruins and mausoleums he’s constantly digging up among the chaos of the modern city — and the glorious food.  He has a four-volume guidebook to the city and he’s recently done a beautiful four-part photo op and piece of his trip to Kashmir.  Don’t miss this blog!


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