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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Art: Shah Jahan Watching an Elephant Fight

» Attributed to Bulaqi

Shah Jahan Watching an Elephant Fight

Shah Jahan Watching an Elephant Fight
Artist / Origin: Attributed to Bulaqi
Region: South and Southeast Asia
Date: Mughal Period, ca. 1639
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Opaque watercolor and gold on paper
Medium: Calligraphy, Illumination, and Illustrated Books
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY

A number of manuscripts or albums documenting events from the life of the emperor in both text and illustration were produced during the Mughal period in India.

Images from such books or collected works included everything from military engagements and hunting excursions to entertainments and ceremonies at court, as in this image.

The scene, which depicts the emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628–58) watching an elephant fight, has been associated with the Padshahnama (The Chronicle of the King of the World)commemorating the emperor’s reign and appears to be set in the Lal Qila, or Red Fort, at Delhi. The building of the Red Fort, so called for the red sandstone dominating its construction, began in the 1630s. It was erected as part of Shah Jahan’s larger vision for a new capital at Delhi that would be named Shahjahanabad. The huge complex raised at the Red Fort included a number of areas specifically designed to facilitate various aspects of court ceremony.

Like his father and predecessor, Jahangir, Shah Jahan followed a daily routine marked by ritualized activities. At his palace in the Red Fort at Delhi, luxurious marble reception halls were created for the emperor’s public and private audiences, or durbars, which were held each day at specified times. Public audiences included all visitors, while private audiences were limited to those individuals who held the emperor’s greatest trust. Those in attendance at durbars were expected to follow strict protocol, including taking their appropriate places within a hierarchical arrangement that put the king on his throne at the highest position with those of lesser rank at various levels below him. This hierarchy is echoed in the scene depicted here.

Durbars were often followed by elephant fights, the exclusive privilege of the emperor. In this illustration, Shah Jahan appears in profile in the uppermost window. He is present both to watch the fight and to make a public appearance. On the balcony below him stand various dignitaries, while on the ground level, two more groups are distinguished—one comprised of additional spectators, the other of the men supervising the animals.

Expert Perspective: Santhi Kavuri-Bauer, Assistant Professor of Art History, San Francisco State University

“Red Fort was established in 1648 and its function was to serve as the capital for the Mughal Empire. The reason why Shah Jahan had it built was because the other two capitals were too small for the kind of ceremonies that he imagined happening. The ceremonies were very essential. Because the Mughal Empire socially was so heterogeneous, the nobility was from different religious backgrounds, it was important for him to create a social order.

Shah Jahan at Red Fort would show himself every morning at a window that faces the outside wall, a wall with a window that faces the outside. And he would do that at daybreak, and it was called darshan, meaning that he would show himself to the rest of the community and they wouldn’t start—there were people who wouldn’t start work until they saw the face of the emperor. And this was a Hindu ceremony. It also dates to Persian ceremonies, but it’s not Islamic.

The daily ceremonies that took place at Red Fort were so important to the Mughal Emperor. It consolidated his rule, it helped stabilize the society, it also had the added importance of having people perform the hierarchy. And once it was performed it was also represented by court painters in the chronicles of the emperor. And it just helped punctuate his power and importance and the hierarchy that he ruled over.”

Additional Resources

Beach, Milo Cleveland, and Ebba Koch. The King of the World: The Padshahnama: An Imperial Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.

Craven, Roy. Indian Art, rev. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.

Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. London: Phaidon, 1997.

Koch, Ebba. “Diwan-i ‘Amm and Chihil Sutun: The Audience Halls of Shah Jahan.” Muqarnas 11 (1994): 143–165.

Mitter, Partha. Indian Art. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Schimmel, Annemarie. The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture. London: Reaktion, 2004.

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