Subscribe to Updates & Daily Quiz

Mughal Art

Akbar was the first great Mughal patron of the arts. Of his various building projects, the most ambitious was the new capital city of Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra. Built mostly between 1571 and 1585, when Akbar adopted Lahore as his principal residence, the palace buildings at Fatehpur Sikri reflect a synthesis of Timurid traditions  of Iran and Central Asia with indigenous traditions of Hindu and Muslim India.

Although he is said to have been illiterate, Akbar assembled a royal atelier, first at Fatehpur Sikri, then at Lahore, from which he commissioned numerous illustrated manuscripts that incorporate Persian, Indian, and even European elements. In fact, the artists who worked for Akbar, the first great Mughal patron of the arts of the book, included Persians as well as Indian Muslims and Hindus.

This collaborative process helped to foster the development of a specifically Mughal style, which was initiated under Akbar and is demonstrated by pages from diverse late-sixteenth-century manuscripts. This style of painting was further developed and refined during the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan  during the seventeenth century.

As a prince, Jahangir had established his own atelier in Allahabad and had strong artistic tastes, preferring a single painter to work on an image rather than the collaborative method of Akbar’s time. He also encouraged careful plant and animal studies, and prized realistic portraiture and Europeanized subjects.

The books Jahangir commissioned ranged from literary  works such as the Razmnama (a Persian translation of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata) to historical texts, including an illustrated version of the memoirs of his reign, the Tuzuk-i Jahangiri. But more common from his era are lavishly finished albums containing paintings and calligraphy  samples mounted onto pages with decorative borders and then bound with covers of stamped and gilded or painted and lacquered leather. If he could not obtain a work he wanted, he had it copied, and at one time dispatched an artist to Iran to paint a likeness of  Shah ‘Abbas. Jahangir’s claim that he could instantly recognize any painter’s work is a reflection of the rise of the individual artist. Many signatures are preserved on works from this period, with such masters as Bishan Das, Manohar, Abu’l-Hasan, Govardhan, and Daulat emerging as recognizable artistic personalities.

Jahangir’s successor Shah Jahan  (r. 1628–58) is most celebrated for his architectural achievements, the Taj Mahal  being his (and perhaps the country’s) best known monument. He commissioned this tomb for his wife after her death in 1631 and it took sixteen years to complete. The building is set on the bank of the Jumna River in Agra with a formal eightfold garden and reflecting pools in front, its elevation of inlaid white marble striking against the red sandstone of the other buildings in the complex. After moving the capital from Agra to Delhi in 1648, Shah Jahan built a new city there, called Shahjahanabad, and a congregational mosque (1650–56), the largest in all of India. Paintings from his reign were characterized by formal portraits and courtly scenes, replacing the more wide-ranging and personal subject matter under Jahangir. The major commission of his reign was a history called the Padshahnama, illustrated through the 1640s.

Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707) held increasingly orthodox Sunni beliefs, and his reign saw the decline of Mughal patronage of the arts. Early portraits of him do exist, and he commissioned some notable architectural projects such as the Pearl Mosque (in the Red Fort at Delhi), but in 1680 he banned music and painting from his court.

The emperors who followed him were too weak and the state too poor to support the production of sumptuous paintings and books as before; under Bahadur Shah (r. 1707–12) and Muhammad Shah (r. 1719–48), there was a slight resurgence in the arts, but the 1739 raid of Delhi by Nadir Shah caused much of the city’s population to flee and the artistic community to be permanently dispersed. By the 1800s, the Mughals were nominally still emperors of India, but under the protection of the British.

The late Mughal era was also a fruitful period for the provincial and regional patronage of architecture. Maharaja Jai Singh founded the city of Jaipur, known for its palaces and astronomical observatory built in 1734, and Safdarjang, the nawab of Oudh, erected a tomb in Delhi based on that of Humayun (1753–4).

Shah Jahan’s active involvement in the design and production of Mughal architecture had far exceeded that of any other Mughal emperor. Themes initially established in the buildings of his predecessors were finely honed and reached maturity under Shah Jahan. For instance, the long-standing notion that imperial Mughal mausoleum were symbols of paradise was manifest most precisely and imposingly in the Taj Mahal. More than any other ruler, Shah Jahan had sought to use architecture to project the emperor’s formal and ‘semi-divine’ character. He did so, in part, by adapting motifs found in western art and indigenous Indian architecture, such as the baluster column and baldachin covering, giving them a unique imperial context. The ‘charged’ meaning of these motifs, however, is only found in Shah Jahan’s reign, for they are seen on the earliest non-imperial structures of his successor’s reign. He had built many more mosques than did his predecessors and used this building type to project his official image as the ‘upholder of Islam’. This is indeed a trend which had accelerated under Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s son and successor. Mughal architecture during Shah Jahan was one over-the-top and beyond personified endeavour, which was so very much unprecedented, that no other earthly creations could indeed stand neck to neck under any circumstances.

The tomb of Mumtaz Mahal marks a return to Humayun’s Timurid tomb-type and indeed the interest in elaborate Timurid vaulting types is heightened in Shah Jahan’s reign. Trabeated pavilions, as seen in earlier Mughal reigns, grace Shah Jahan’s palaces, hunting estates and gardens.

Shah Jahan’s personal involvement in architecture and city planning appears to have motivated others, especially the high-ranking women of his court, to build.

While the emperor had provided palace buildings and forts, these women and the nobility had acquired responsibility for embellishing the cities. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in his de novo city, Shahjahanabad, where mosques, gardens, markets, serais and mansions were provided by the aristocracy. This emperor was so much a man with intelligence par excellence, that Mughal architecture during Shah Jahan endeavouring to reach the peak, had in fact achieved the peak, irrespective of hostilities.

Mughal architecture during Aurangzeb and its spread makes one comprehend that the emperor was much less involved in architectural production than his predecessors were. However, the emperor did sponsor momentous monuments, especially religious ones. Most notable amongst them are mosques that date prior to the Mughal court’s shift to the Deccan. Some of these, such as the Idgah in Mathura were built by the ruler himself, others by his nobles to proclaim Mughal authority in the face of opposition. On Aurangzeb’s palace mosque one can witness an elaboration of floral and other patterns derived from those on Shah Jahan’s palace pavilions. But these forms are no longer intended to suggest the ‘semi-divine’ character of ruler, a notion that little concerned Aurangzeb.

Aurangzeb’s Mughal architecture during those times was firstly begun with repairing numerous older mosques. The frequent mention of his repair and construction of mosques suggests that this was the architectural enterprise he most highly valued. He reputedly had repaired more mosques than any of his predecessors, not just Mughal mosques but also those built under the Tughluq, Lodi and Deccani sultans as well. In other cases, Aurangzeb was attentive to the maintenance of mosques.


The interests and preoccupations of early Mughal painting are closely identifiable with those of their imperial patron. They are reflections of both the richly cosmopolitan court which he cultivated and maintained and of his direct involvement as director of artistic activities and as principal critic.

Abu’l Fazl records that the emperor directed that many books be illustrated, ‘His Majesty having indicated the scenes to be painted’. His description of the procedures followed at the court revealed an extraordinary degree of patron involvement in the very processes of the art production. In addition he outlined clearly the criteria employed in making qualitative judgments of the works themselves.

Each week the several superintendents and clerks submitted before the king the work done by each artist, and he gave a reward and increased the monthly salaries according to the excellence displayed. He looked deeply into the matter of raw materials and set a high value on the quality of production. As a result, colouring gained a new beauty, and finish a new clarity … Delicacy of work, clarity of line, and boldness of execution, as well as other fine qualities, have reached perfection, and inanimate objects appear to come alive.3

Sixteenth-century Islamic court painting is distinguished for its extreme refinement and fidelity, and an over-riding preoccupation with surface embellishment. The contribution of European art, known principally through engravings of Christian subjects distributed by evangelising Jesuits, was that of naturalism, to animate the figures and introduce atmospheric qualities into the landscape.

Akbari painting is principally illustrative, concerned with recording and describing events. These may be historic, legendary, religious, or indeed contemporary, in the instance of an album of portraits of courtiers which Akbar directed be prepared.

Like his father Akbar, the emperor Jahangir showed a keen interest in painting and maintained his own atelier. The tradition of illustrating books assumed secondary importance to portraiture during Jahangir’s reign because of the emperor’s own preference for portraits.

Among the finest works of his reign are elaborate court scenes depicting him surrounded by his courtiers. These are large scale exercises in portraiture, and the likeness of each figure is produced faithfully. The composition lacks the vigor, movement, and vivid color characterized by the works of Akbar’s reign; the figures are more formally ordered, the colors soft and harmonious, and the brushwork particularly fine. Mughal paintings during Jahangir’s reign also boast magnificent floral and geometric borders.

While the artistic focus of the Mughal court shifted primarily to architecture under Shah Jahan, painting continued to flourish. The style became notably more rigid, and portraits resembled abstract effigies. Paintings of this period were particularly opulent, as the colors used became jewel-like in their brilliance. Popular themes included musical parties, lovers in terraces and gardens—sometimes locked in intimate embraces—and ascetics and holy men.

The emperor Aurangzeb (1658–1707) did not encourage Mughal painting, and only a few portraits survive from his court. Most of these were accomplished in the cold, abstract style of Shah Jahan. A brief revival occurred during the reign of Muhammad Shah (1719–1748), who was passionately devoted to the arts, but this was only temporary. Mughal painting essentially came to an end during the reign of Shah Alam II (1759–1806), and the artists of his disintegrated court contented themselves with copying masterpieces of the past.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *