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The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art, and Culture.

The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art, and Culture. By Annemarie Schimmel. Translated by Corinne Atwood. Edited by Francis Robinson. London: Reaktion Books, 2004. 352 pages.

"For Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Great Mughal Empire seemed like a wonderland of fabulous riches, priceless jewels and golden treasure" (15). Annemarie Schimmel's entire book is imbued with this sense of wonder, leading us through a rich verbal and visual survey of the Mughal Empire from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. The Empire of the Great Mughals is not a standard political history of Mughal power and its decline, nor is it an inclusive social history of the different classes. Rather, it creates a vivid picture of a highly complex and nomadic courtly life and culture, and the profusion of artistic products generated by royal patronage and practice.

Overall, Schimmel's methodology seems to resemble the aesthetic principles of Mughal paintings that illustrate her book: she offers a "bird's eye" perspective similar to the distanced, stylized, and flattened images of the miniature paintings--one that depicts a sweeping panorama of a specific event in the court for instance, while capturing in minute detail the setting, architecture, vegetation, clothes, objects, animals, and diverse kinds of people. In a similar vein, The Empire of the Great Mughals opens up a series of vistas of the Mughal court, its manners and customs, modes of royal governance, and patronage of diverse arts and artistic practices.

Schimmel begins with a historical introduction covering the reign of six major rulers: Babar, Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jehan, and Aurangzeb, followed by a compressed account of the remaining rulers, in the declining years of the empire, from 1707 to 1857. Subsequent chapters cover a range of topics, including, for instance, the workings of the court and the empire, religion, women in the court, the imperial household, languages and literature, and the arts. "No other dynasty in the Islamic world has left behind more comprehensive historical documentation than the Mughals" (15). Combining official and unofficial records, these include chronicles and albums embellished with vivid miniature paintings, such as the life of Babar (Babarnama), illustrated by artists at the court of Akbar. Schimmel draws on this dense archive of words and images--often supplementing them with European eyewitness accounts by visitors such as Bernier, a French physician, or Tavernier, a French jeweler--to create a rich tapestry that a review without images can hardly capture adequately.

Accounts of the splendor of the Mughal court filtered into the European imagination in the Renaissance via the narratives of travelers and emissaries such as Sir Thomas Roe, Ralph Fitch, and Edward Terry. Typically, these descriptions express a cultural superiority over, and (sometimes grudging) sense of awe at, the highly theatrical rituals of power visitors witnessed. Chapter 2 vividly details a nonjudgmental view of the material and symbolic manifestations of power in the court protocols, as evidenced, for instance, in "the precise order in which the nobles, often identified by name, were positioned around the throne" (66). "On special occasions the diwan-i-amm (public hall) would be adorned with carpets and wall hangings, and from the time of Shah Jehan, the Peacock Throne would be brought out.... On such rare occasions the highest ranking amirs were permitted to sit on cushions of deep red cashmere shawls" (67). Courtly rituals involving the nobles as well as foreign emissaries and visitors were governed by complex codes of obeisance, reciprocity, and gift exchanges, which often intimidated and confused European visitors: "Thomas Roe [for instance] was amazed at the many gifts received by Jehangir, whilst the ruler was equally amazed at the paltry gifts presented by the British" (71).

Typically, the Mughals are considered an Islamic empire with roots in the medieval Muslim kingdoms of Central Asia--as Babar's father, we learn, was "a direct descendant of Timur [Tamburlane] ... and his mother was a descendant of Chinghiz Khan" (23). However, in chapter 3 (on the empire's practices of trade, law, martial practices, and diplomacy) and chapter 4 (on religion), the Mughal Empire emerges as a cross-cultural, multiethnic domain, open to a profusion of religions and sects, though the extent of such openness varied with individual rulers.

The empire's inclusiveness is apparent in this contemporary description: "People from many races (Arabs, Persians, Turks, Tajiks, Kurds ... Tatars, Russians, Abyssinians and so on) and from many countries (i.e., Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Arabia ...), in fact, different groups and classes of people from all races and all human societies have sought refuge in the royal court, as well as different groups from India, men with knowledge and skills as well as warriors" (81). In chapter 3, the author also details the trade routes and the densely populated, flourishing cities such as Lahore, Agra, and Delhi, comparable to Istanbul and European cities like London and Paris (96). Commodities including silk, calico, spices, indigo, and jute, to name a few, attracted European merchants and trading companies. And importantly, here and throughout the book, Schimmel observes the new products and influences brought by the Europeans: "The influence of European painters is clearly visible in [Mughal] landscape paintings and in embroidery after 1600.... Sometime later, around 1630, there was a reverse flow as a great many Mughal miniatures went to Holland, where they served as models for Rembrandt and other painters" (106).

Religious cross-pollination was also evident in the reign of the Mughals, though in uneven and complex ways: according to Schimmel, "the [religious] attitudes of the Muslim conquerors alternated between ... 'India-oriented, mystical and inclusive' and 'Mecca-oriented, prophetic and exclusive'" (107). Within this spectrum, Akbar was the most inclusive, remarkably open to interfaith interactions and borrowings, whereas Aurangzeb "would be regarded as a fundamentalist today ... [in that he] wanted to make India a truly Islamic nation" (109). Beginning with Akbar, Mughal rulers included Hindus in their administration and military, and sometimes also married Rajput princesses. Jehangir's mother was a Rajput princess, and the effect of such mixed marriages is evident in Mughal portraiture, showing "the transition from the strongly Central Asian facial features of Babar, and even Akbar, to more sharply chiseled features and darker skin [of their descendents]" (112).

Schimmel also reminds us of Akbar's well-known interfaith dialogues with the Portuguese Jesuits, reproduced in the book in a famous painting of Akbar engaged in a debate with the Jesuit fathers in 1597 in the ibadatkhana (debating hall) (122). Coming from the world of the Inquisition, the priests were "amazed at Akbar's tolerance" (120). "A farman (edict) of 1603 granted the Christians the right to preach and gain converts and erect Churches" (121), and the Bible and its illustrations also began to influence Mughal paintings, as indicated by their inclusion of biblical scenes in later albums. All Mughals did not follow Akbar's inclusionary impulses, in part because the political and trading power struggles between the Europeans (Portuguese and English) extended to a deterioration of religious reciprocity.

Finally, this chapter also details interesting influences of the various strands of Sufism on the Mughal Empire, showing the diverse cross-currents of faith within or related to Islam. After the Baghdad mystic al-Hallaj, also called Mansur, traveled to the subcontinent around 900, the "following centuries saw the arrival of many men of God belonging to different brotherhoods or following different 'Ways.' [Among these] were the Chishtis, lovers of music and poetry" (128-29), to whom Akbar and some other members of the nobility were frequently drawn.

Focusing on another controversial topic, the role of women in the Islamic world, in chapter 5, Schimmel claims, based on "a wealth of documentation on women in the imperial household, [that they] were often as powerful as their husbands; acting as patrons of architecture, art and science; sometimes playing a role in government; having the right to issue edicts, intervene on behalf of prisoners; and much more besides" (143). She is clearly countering the stereotype of the role of women in the harem, in part through the assertion that Muslim women from Central Asia enjoyed more freedoms than those in the Central Islamic regions (144). Women's royal power was most strikingly exemplified by Jehangir's queen, Nur Jehan, who came from a powerful noble family and was "the de facto regent, and had coins minted in her own name" (149). The most romantic name associated with Mughal women, Mumtaz Mahal (buried in the Taj Mahal), was her niece. Women in courtly circles enjoyed many privileges, including education and ownership of property as were afforded the royal princesses, several of whom have left writings that testify to their contributions. Jehanara, Shah Jehan's daughter, for instance, received an excellent education and wrote a detailed account of her introduction to the Sufi path. An interest in religious works and piety among aristocratic Mughal women was not unlike similar vocations among Renaissance women of the upper classes.

The most richly illuminating chapters are 8 and 9, which bring to life the Mughals' legacy in literature, languages, and the arts (including the architectural monuments). Using many examples, Schimmel maps the confluence of different languages and literary traditions which the Mughals patronized: "In general, poetical forms which had been developed in classical Arabic literature, and to an even greater extent those in Persian literature, were transposed into Perso-Turkic Urdu Poetry during the Mughal era" (229). The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also saw literary production in regional Indian languages, such as Sindhi, Panjabi, and Pashtu; in the dissemination of Sanskrit (sometimes in translation projects); and in widespread use of Urdu by 1700. As a result, all forms of literary writing flourished in this period, "from poetry and popular Sufi verses to learned prose and historiography" (229).

Finally, chapter 9 details the Mughals' love for fine books, paintings, architecture, and landscapes (gardens). In all these forms of aesthetic creation, too, the Mughal period revealed a rich cross-pollination of influences, not only from the Persian, Ottoman, and indigenous Indian traditions, but also, as Schimmel notes, from European schools of art.

Mughal miniature paintings, for instance, drew on European techniques of perspective and realism as well as on allegorical and biblical themes (evident in the many illustrations of this chapter). Jehangir was "exceptionally interested in European painting, and his artists copied a portrait brought by Sir Thomas Roe so accurately that it could hardly be distinguished from the original" (275). Schimmers concluding section on the golden age of Mughal architecture is truly the "jewel" of this densely detailed book, and one can only praise her for a thorough introduction to the major monuments, palaces, mosques, and formal gardens of the Mughal era. In keeping with the ideal familiar in the European Renaissance, the Mughals' aestheticism synthesized art and nature perfectly.

Schimmel acknowledges the limits of her approach in that she does not dwell on the "ordinary people" or consider how "the poverty of the general population was in sharp contrast to the luxury of their rulers" (300). Nonetheless, she gives credit to a large population for their participation in the artistic production of the period: "These millions of people had an unsurpassed ability to create amazing works of art with tools which appear extremely primitive today" (300). She does not want anything to "detract from the greatness and beauty of this era. [The Mughal] legacies are their magnificent buildings, the unrivalled beauty and wide range of their artworks" (302).

Despite this limitation, The Empire of the Great Mughals is an important book as an introduction to the art and culture of the Mughal Empire. It also adds to the growing body of scholarship that counters the view of the European Renaissance as culturally impermeable by pointing to an exchange of ideas, cultures, and commodities between Europe and its rival empires. Furthermore, the serf-aggrandizements of kingdoms such as Elizabethan and Jacobean England pale before the Eastern empires of the Mughals, Persians, and Ottomans (all of which were bound together in relations of both mutuality and rivalry). It is important today, as we talk of the "clash of civilizations," to remember that the Mughals left a rich aesthetic legacy of art, poetry, music, and architecture, harmoniously bringing together art and nature--and a far cry from contemporary stereotypes of Islam embodied by the Taliban and their destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamian. Such fundamentalist impulses bear no relation to the great flowering of Mughal aestheticism.

Jyotsna G. Singh

Michigan State University

Lansing, Michigan
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Author:Singh, Jyotsna G.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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