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Miniature Paintings Under Akbar


Image Source: Wikipedia

In 1539 Humayun took refuge at the court of the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp after suffering defeat at the hands of Sher Shah Suri. There, he was captivated by the beauty of Persian miniature paintings and as a parting gift, received two of Shah Tahmasp’s most acclaimed painters, Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad.

We are not sure of any commissioned paintings under him but we can be sure that his son Akbar was a great ptron of paintings. So much so that he created a royal karkhana and commissioned multiple paintings on various themes. In fact, when he was criticized for supporting paintings since Islam condemned creating human figures as believed it was equivalent to challenging the god himself, Akbar presented his own argument against this, as mentioned in Akbarnama. He said:

“There are many that hate painting but such men I dislike. It appears to me that a painter had quite peculiar means of recognizing God; for a painter is sketching everything that has life and is devising its limbs, one after the other, one must come to feel that he cannot bestow individual upon his work, and thus is forced to think of god, the giver of life, and will thus increase his knowledge.”

With this belief among the plethora of paintings he created, some of the best known examples include Hamzanana, Tutinama, Razmanama, Akbaranama and Baburnama.

Tutinama was an illustrated version of the “Tales of a Parrot” in the latter half of the 16th century. It was the earliest manuscript ascribed to Akbar, certainly the most profile and influential of all Mughal emperors. It depicts the adventure stories narrated by a parrot for 52 successive nights to his mistress, Khojasta, to prevent her from meeting her paramour while her husband, Majnun, is away. The Tutinama is that of high moralistic tone and is the best representation of the formative stages of the Mughal style of originating at the Emperor Akbar’s court where Persian and Indian painters gathered and their different traditions merged. It has 250 illustrations illustrated by Mir Sayyid Ali and Adbus Samad over five years, we know so because in some paintings the painters have written their names in the margins. Some other names that pop up other that Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad include Baswan who depicted some scenes. ‘The Origin of Music’ and ‘The Parrot Addresses Khoojasta’ have been described in the text.

 Hammzanama narrates the stories of Amir Hamza, an uncle of Prophet Muhammad and his adventures. He became the hero of popular legends told by story tellers that presented him as an intrepid warrior who travelled the world intending to spread the word of Islam. His adventures were many and varied, as he battled against giants, demons and strange creatures. It is painted on a cloth measuring 67.5x50cm and consists of 12 volumes that were painted in the years between 1560-75. This too was directed by Mir Saiyyad Ali and Khwaja Abdus Samad and it involved over a hundred artists, gilders and bookbinders. The paintings described in the text are ‘Hamza Killing a Lion’ and ‘Hamza Killed in Battle’

Razmanama or the “Book of Wars” is a translation of the Sanskrit Mahabharata written in Persian that was sponsored by Akbar and is noted for its elaborate and exquisite illustrations. It was commissioned by Akbar and dates to around 1598-99. The translations include all 18 books of the Mahabharata and Harivamsa appendix. The project involved two teams of translators who transmitted the epic verbally via their shared language of Hindi. Examples of the text elaborated here are ‘Arjuna and Tamradhyaja fighting while the gods enjoyed the spectacle’ and ‘Blind King Dhrtrashtra, led by Kunti, Leaving the City of Hastinapur’

Akbarnama literally means the “Book of Akbar” if the official chronicle of the reign of Akbar. It has been written in Persian by Abul Fazl, it was commissioned by Akbar and completed between 1590-96. It includes vivid and detailed descriptions of his life and times. It was written in Persian by Abu’l Fazl and is thought to have been illustrated by at least 49 different artists from Akbar’s studio. The paintings lited here are ‘Akbar Hunting’ and ‘Akbar Walking Barefoot After He Had a Son.’ Baburnama is the autobiography of Babur that was originally written in Turki. It was translated into Persian and illustrated in the last decades of the 16th century. Akbar ordered his grandfather’s memoirs to be translated from their original Turki into Persian, the pre-eminent language of the court and the administration of the empire, so that they could be widely read. The examples of Baburnama are ‘Babur Supervising the Lay Out of the Garden of Fidelity’ and ‘the bloody conquest of the fortified citadel of Chanderi by Babur’s army.’

Pl. 1: The Origin of Music from Tutinama

The above painting is called the Origin of Music, attributed to Baswan it is a painting from the Tutinama and can be dated between 1565 and 1570. It is a watercolour and ink on paper with 10×10.3 cm dimentions. The Iranian legend of the mythical bird the Mausiqar, which provides the seven notes that are said to comprise the origin of music, is supposed to be the inspiration for this composition. There is a bird in the bottom right corner that serves as the musician’s muse. The attention is focused on the musician playing the vina on the beautiful rug and the muse almost goes unnoticed. The work invokes aesthetic pleasure and music is deemed as a means to stimulate love. Various motifs like a shield, sword, and a bow can be seen on the left side of the painting and a quiver is hung on a tree. The Origin of Music is a painting that demonstrates the painters talent for portraiture and his ability to render rocks and trees with a naturalism.

It can be seen that the singer is holding a manuscript in his right hand and the painting can be divided into three part i.e. the foreground (the rocks and the bird), the middle ground with the singer and the background with a red tent. His shoes lie in front of the carpet and there is a vessel probably carrying water or some other liquid next to it. The trees are naturalistic and the rocks have visible Persian influence. He is sitting under a shade looking up showing that he is completely engrossed in what he is doing. There is Persian text written above and below the painting probably talking about the painting. Overall details have been rendered with great detail to show the perfection of the artist and gives out an aesthetically pleasing appeal to the viewer.

Pl. 2: The Parrot Addresses Khojasta

The above painting from Tutinama represents the forty-fifth story as mentioned in the text of the painting. Here, in the story the parrot tells Khojasta about a cunning snake and thereby advising the mistress to leave deception. It was painted somewhere between 1565 and 1570 in the Mughal atelier under Akbar using watercolour, ink and gold on paper. It measures 9.6×10.1 cm and is currently housed at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The painting shows Khojasta standing on the right and the parrot on the left, in front of her, talking while sitting comfortably. Both of them are in a hexagonal complex the walls of which can be seen. The walls and the floor have been painted in such a way that they show the Indo-Islamic influence in the patterns. Four pillars have been painted at four angles of the structure. In the background there is a railing beyond which trees that are painted realistically can be seen, which on the other side there something that looks like a door. Even tdark blue sky is visible, showing that they are out somewhere in the open, probably in something that is like a tent.  There is text on top and bottom of the painting telling what is happening in the scene painted. Overall, the painting is aesthetically pleasing and there is a slight tough of perspective in the sense the trees in the background are smaller than everything in the foreground. It can be noticed that there is a lack of many objects filling in the space. However, the lack of material things has been made up for by various designs or patterns that can be seen throughout the painting. This shows the  mastery of the painter to beautifully fill space to make it seem even more appealing.

Pl. 3: Hamza Killing a Lion

The Painting is 65.2 cm high and 51.8 cm wide. It is a gouache on cotton and shows Hamza killing a lion on his way to visit the Anoshiryan at Mada, and has been taken from the Hamzanana, a book commissioned by Akbar.

Soon after his arrival, Mihr-Nigar falls in love with him. He then breaks in a magic horse, is rescued by Buzurjmihr, and gains honors with Anoshiryan.

In the Upper middle of the picture, a young man in orange and gold robe with white robe, green trousers and white turban, mounted on a black horse, cleaves the head of a lion with his sword  despite the fact that the lion is prancing towards him. Therefore the man has been identified as Hamza himself.

A young man on a white horse watches this feat with administration on the upper left part of the background.

In the foreground is the dismounted corpse of a man, cleft from the head to the waist, clad in a green tunic and red trouser. At his side is a sheathed sword and on the ground is a mace. His brown horse is seen disappearing on the left. The reason behind showing this figure is to probably show how great a fighter Hamza was. It hightens the heroism of the protagonist who fought the man and then was still ready to fight the tiger.

The subjects are set in a rocky landscape with sparse vegetation, trees and bamboo. It is believed that the painting was made somewhere between 1562 and 1577. However, the artist is unknown and is currently housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which houses the largest collection of the Hamzanama in one place.

Pl. 4: Hamza Killed in Battle

The above painting is gouache on cotton, depicting Hamza, killed in battle at Mount Uhud.

Hamza was a character based partly on a historical Iranian insurrectionary leader from Sistan ans was also identified with the uncle of the Prophet Muhamad.

In the painting he is beheaded and mutilated and can be seen within an enclosure. The enclosure is surrounded by embroidered screens with a throne.

Seated on the throne is a bearded man dressed in a green and gold robe and turban, behind whom are other bearded men, one of whom offers a white scarf to the seated man.

Before him, another man of high rank presents a young woman clad in a flowered blue choli who is partially concealed by a screen.

In the upper part of the picture is a cave in which lies the decapitated body of a man dressed in an orange robe with a katar (dagger) thrust into his white girdle. Around him are the disorderly remains of a feast. To the left are the same man and woman, seen lower down in the enclosure. In the background are rocks and trees.

The setting of the painting is majorly in an arid area and there is hardly any vegetation that can be seen i.e. the setting of the painting is a dry region. Overall the painting does not follow the rules of perspective as such since Hamza’s corpse in much larger than anything else in the painting despite the fact that it is in the background.

Pl. 5: Arjuna and Tamradhyaja Fighting While the Gods Enjoy the Spectacle

The battle of Kurukshetra is clearly visible in the painting from the Razmanama. In this scene Aruja can be seen fighting with Tamradhyaj and has been taken from the 14th book i.e. the Asvamedhikaparva or the Horse Sacrifice.

A war scene is evident as there are four chariots, all being dragged by two horses, painted in different colours. One of Arjuna’s horse is blue in colour probably suggesting that the horse was of superior quality in comparission to the other horses. Above the war scene in the clouds are five gods, seated safely, clearly enjoying the spectacle.

Arjuna’s charioteer is Krishna, as is evident from the blue skin, and the pitambar or the yellow dhoti. Also visible on the chariot is a man lying with an arrow through his chest that is visible from his back. This shows the seriousness and the casualties of the war.

The painting can be divided into three parts, the vegetation growing in the foreground, followed by the main battle scene in the middle ground with a fighting scene with no vegetation accept small grasses, this leads small ridges with realistic trees. What can be called as the background is on the top where the gods and clouds are visible. Overall, the painting has been done with a lot of precision and is extremely realistic, especially the trees in the background and the clouds. Another intriguing feature of the painting is that there is a slight touch of three dimensionality and it does not look like plain. Every element of the painting has been dealt with great precision and the evening sky looks breath taking, showing how this battle was fought for a very long time and did not even break at sunset like was the norm since it lasted for seven days.

Pl. 6: Blind King Dhritrashtra led by Kunti, Leaving the City of Hastinapur

In the painting above, the blind king Dhṛtaraṣṭra can be seen being led by Kunti as they leave  the city of Hastinapur and retire to the forest. His wife Gandhari, blindfolded, supports him following behind. It has been take from the 15th book of Ramanama called the Asramavasikaparva or the Retirement to the Hermitage.

Behind Ganndhari many men, women of all ages can be seen dejected by the news of their beloved king leaving. The background behind this can be divided in two parts. Towards the left is evidently a palace while towards the right there is a transition from cityscape to Persian influenced rocks and realistic trees showing that they are leaving the city and going towards the forest to live the life of a hermitage after king Dhratrashtra’s children die in the battle of Kurukshetra.

Shading is prevalent in the painting, and in fact has been rendered with a lot of precision. It is especially visible in the rocks and the clothes of the people, especially the king. The clothes of the people show the trend and the colours that the people used to wear. The women mostly wore a lehenga on long skirt with a blouse of a different colour and a chunni or a stole. All women in the painting can be seen wearing necklaces, while everyone except Kunti is wearing earrings and bracelets and armlets. The men on the other hand can be seen wearing dhotis and turban while most of them are bear chested. Some men however are wearing tunics.

Pl. 7: Akbar Hunting

This illustration from the Akbarnama by Basawan and Dharmdas depicts Akbar hunting with cheetahs in the neighbourhood of Agra. The emperor was particularly fond of hunting and frequently participated in this exciting sport. Here, Akbar is the central figure on horseback chasing a cheetah. Other members of the hunting party are shown also participating in the capture of animals on foot, horseback and riding on elephants. Several cages are shown, which were used both to entrap animals (goats were placed in the cage to attract tigers) and to transport them.

In general the first look of the painting shows chaos, which is expected when someone is hunting with a company of people. Most wild animals can be seen prancing from here to there running away from the danger that has befallen them, showing how mighty Akbar was that even the wild animals were scared of him

The painting can be divided in three parts. In the lower part it is as if the animals are living their life normally, as a cheetah can be seen eating an animal near a water body. However, there is also a man probably rearing his buffaloes. This is can also be suggested that Akbar was killing the beasts that were troubling his people.

In the middle part of the painting, the hunting is taking place and there is chaos. And most animals can be seen running away from Akbar. In the upper portion on the other hand, there is relative peace and stability. There are elephants and people who seem to be watching Akbar hunt, and there are also some cages that are visible on the other side that is divided by rocks. Overall, the painting is showing various emotions and motions of both humans and animals which makes the painting unique in a way.

Pl. 8: Akbar Walking Barefoot After He Had a Son

This painting from the Akbaranama depicts an incident from the life of the Mughal emperor Akbar who had vowed that if he should be blessed with a son, he would walk to the shrine of the founder of the Chishti order, Shaikh Mu’in ad-Din Chishti, at Ajmer to offer his prayers.

He left Agra in January 1570, and swiftly covered the 370 or so kilometers. He is depicted here accompanied by servants carrying emblems of royalty.

Abu’l Fazl, in the A’in-i Akbari, the third volume of his history of the reign entitled the Akbarnama, notes that whenever the emperor went out in a formal context, five standards would be carried next to him, as well as the qur, a collection of flags and other insignia. These were all wrapped in red cloth, the colour of royalty. The aftabgir, a shade held over the emperor’s head and seen here, was also on Abu’l Fazl’s list of royal emblems. While in Ajmer, Akbar distributed alms at the shrine, visited other local sacred places, and ordered the construction of new mosques.

When a second son, Murad, was born at Sikri some months later to another wife, Akbar returned to Ajmer and had the fort enlarged, new mansions built and gardens laid out for the elite of the court. From then until 1579 he made annual pilgrimages to the city.

The composition of the painting was designed by Basawan, and the “work”  or painting, was done by Nand Gwaliari. In the background on the upper part a the dargah of Sheikh Salim Chishti can towards which Akbar is headed barefoot.

Pl. 9: Babur Supervising the Laying Out of the Garden of Fidelity

The painting is opaque and done in watercolour and gold on paper by Bishndas and painted by Nanha, it measures 22.2×13.8 cm.

The painting was roughly created in 1590.

Babur in the painting  is supervising the laying out the Garden of Fidelity, outside Kabul, and mountains are visible in the background.

This is left side of the double-page composition shows the enclosure wall of the garden, and figures waiting outside the gate with horses; inside, a figure holds a plumb line to guide the division of the garden into the traditional Iranian chahar bagh, or four-part garden. The line continues across into the right side of the composition  where Babur is depicted supervising the planting.

Multiple people and horses can be seen along with trees.  There is also an antelope time animal in the mountains and the beginning of the garden can be seen.

The text is in short panels at top and bottom, each of the two lines running across the pages and there is a faint red “51” in the lower margin, indicating the illustration number in the volume.

It is currently housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and it is a part of the South and South East Asian Collection there. The use of light colours gives an overall pleasing look to the painting.

Pl. 10: Conquest of the Fortified Citadel of Chanderi

This illustration had been removed from a manuscript of the Baburnama  before the Vicatoria and Albert museum acquired it in on the London art market in 1913.

This painting depicts the bloody conquest of the fortified citadel of Chanderi by Babur’s army in 1528. It is depicting the defenders of Chanderi putting their women to death as Babur’s troops storm the fort.

The fort has been painted with great precision with utmost importance given to every single brick in the structure. Even in the extreme background, behind the fort, trees and clouds have been made beautifully and realistically. Yet, it is visible that there is a lack of proper perspective.

The overall look of the painting is that of chaos and almost everything in the painting is chaotic suggesting the mood of the painting. Despite that, we can see the clothes of the people and the various weapons that were used during that time. while the clothes of men are a dhoti, tunic and a turban, the weapons being used include spears and knives.

Through this painting it can be assumed that Babur’s army, that is on horses below the fort completely destroyed the army inside in an extremely violent and bloody combat.

A contemporary annotation at the bottom of the page notes that the composition is by La’l and the work, i.e. the painting is by Durga. La’l was one of the most famous artists in the imperial Mughal workshop in the 1590s. The painting is in opaque watercolour on paper and there is Persian text in the upper left hand side of the painting.

After Akbar, it was Jahangir who continued the tradition and since Jahangir was influenced by European paintings, he then ordered his painters to follow the single line perspective used by European artists. One of the major projects commissioned by Jahangir was the ‘Jahngirnama.’ Some fine paintings of flora and fauna are most popular of his time.

Shahjahan, son of Jahangir patronized painting and artists produced the richest work in his era, yet the decline began as he was more interested in architecture. But during the time of Aurangzeb, the atelier had to shut down and that declared the fall of the Mughal miniature painting, thus, ended the beautiful legacy of the Mughal Karkhanas that gave rise to many other schools of art throughout the sub-continent.

Therefore, Akbar played a crucial role in the development of the Mughal Miniature paintings and his paintings can be used for interpreting various aspects of his reign.


Pl. 1: (The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Dean A. Perry, 1961.279.110.b)
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