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The History of Indian Mughal Miniature Painting

Updated: Mar 30

Part - 2

In the ensuing chapter, I intend to commence with the translation of section 34 from 'Akbarnama,' wherein Abul Fazl expounds on several significant details. In Part 2 of the History of Indian Mughal Miniature Painting, we pursue the knowledge of Abul Fazal, who shared in the mentioned book.

Abul Fazal presenting Akbarnama to Akbar
Abul Fazal presenting Akbarnama to Akbar

Tasbir refers to a precise representation of an object or subject. Emperor Akbar was highly passionate about portrait art as he believed it could serve both educational and entertainment purposes, given his illiteracy. His inquisitiveness played a significant role in driving this interest. Abul Fazl notes that the Emperor's enthusiasm for portrait art intensified the culture of art, leading to artists being honored in various ways by the Emperor. The royal staff and inspectors submitted selected paintings weekly for evaluation by the Emperor, who would reward them or increase their monthly salaries based on quality. Art materials were available in good quality, and under supervision to control pricing while intermingles of colors flourished remarkably, resulting in increased luminosity that captured viewers' attention. Some exceptional paintings from this period met European miniature artist standards and even surpassed Bihzad's works with impeccable finishing, detailed attentiveness, and successful presentation intelligence that is unmatched today. Hindu artists newly appointed at the royal court contributed significantly to reviving lifeless objects through painting - a skill rare among other artists worldwide today.

The Gods Sing and Dance for Shiva and Parvati. Mughal Miniature.
The Gods Sing and Dance for Shiva and Parvati, Kangra, c. 1780-1790

Abul Fazl mentions the names of those royal artists, which I mentioned in my previous article, but I no longer want to repeat them here.

He persisted, stating that while some may view creating a lifelike representation of an object as a pointless endeavor, it serves as a wellspring of inspiration for those who are literate and trained in the arts. Those who succumb to narrow-minded bigotry are opposed to true artistry. Astonishingly, these individuals are still capable of appreciating paintings. Akbar would often jest with his close companions and declare, “I hold nothing but disdain for those who harbor animosity towards artists. In my opinion, they possess a remarkable aptitude for exploring the nature of God. When an artist paints an animal or human figure, their soul is perhaps praying to bring it to life - such efforts only serve to enhance their artistic intuition."

Painting of Razmnama; A copy of Mahabharat.
Painting of Razmnama; A copy of Mahabharat.

With the emperor's support and appreciation, there was a notable increase in the number of masterful miniature paintings. Only Hamzanama produced over 1400 world-class masterpieces among all other depictions by following its captivating narrative. Other works of art followed suit with impressive storylines, such as Razmnama, Ramayan, Naldaman[1] (originally Nal-Damayanti), Ayar Danish, Kalila[2] Dimna (originally Kalia Daman), and many more. The Emperor himself sat for his portrait and subsequently ordered portraits of notable individuals from within his empire to be created. As a result, an immense album was compiled where even deceased figures were resurrected through their lifelike portrayals while living subjects were promised immortality within its pages.

As an outgrowth of the endorsement of artists, other art-related miscellaneous professionals are getting a standard income that was coveted. Even soldiers also started earning from 600 to 1200 Dum [3]. The above-stated historical documents presented by Abul Fazl have proved that it was the golden era of Indian miniature paintings that reached the highest label of artistry.

Emperor Akbar's decree led to the discovery of several royal libraries in Agra, Delhi, and other locations. These archives contained a wealth of Asian literature that was meticulously translated into various languages, including Persian. The magnificent volumes boasted exquisite bindings and were lavishly illustrated with miniature art at any cost. For instance, Razmnama (an abbreviation for Mahabharat) alone incurred an expense of 40,000 pounds! This masterpiece is presently housed in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Another epic titled Ramayana - a celebrated Hindu scripture created by distinguished court artisans - required 20,000 Pounds to complete and may now be part of a private collection in Washington, D.C. Similarly valued is Akbarnama – yet another opus from this era.

While residing in Agra, Spanish pastor Sebastian reported that the city's royal library held an impressive inventory of 24,000 books worth approximately 720 thousand pounds- keep in mind, this figure pertains only to one library! One can only imagine the staggering expenses incurred across all these regal collections; it undoubtedly reflects their profound interest in knowledge acquisition and preservation. It seems aptly called "Royal Interest."



1. Naldaman, Nala, is a character in Indian mythology. He is the king of Nishadha Kingdom and the son of Weerasena. He is known for his skill with horses and his culinary expertise. He marries Princess Damayanti of the Vidarbha Kingdom, and their story is told in the Mahabharata.

2. Kaliya (In Devanagari: कालिय), in Hindu traditions, was a poisonous Nāga living in the Yamunā river in Vṛndāvana UP. The water of the Yamunā for four leagues all around him boiled and bubbled with poison. No bird or beast could go near; only one solitary Kadamba tree grew on the river bank. The celebration of Nāga Nathaiyā or Nāga Nṛitya is associated with the tale of Lord Krishna dancing upon and subduing Kāliya. The story is told in Vaghbath. 

3. Sher Shah Suri introduced the silver rupee, which weighed 11.6 grams. He also introduced new copper coins called Dam, which were continued by Humayun, Akbar, and other Mughal emperors.


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