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The Arts of the Book During the Mughal Dynasty

The Gods and Asuras Churn the Ocean of Milk
The Gods and Asuras Churn the Ocean of Milk
From a dispersed Razmnama (Book of War)
Ascribed to Fattu, Indian
Northern India, Mughal Court
Manuscript dated by internal colophon to 1598–99
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
The Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department, John Frederick Lewis Collection.
The founders of the Muslim Mughal Dynasty came into India from Central Asia at the end of the sixteenth century carrying with them many traditions of Persian imperial culture, particularly the arts of the book. Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, was himself a powerful leader who brought a vast portion of the subcontinent under Mughal rule by combining military skill and political-religious inclusiveness. He was also a liberal patron of the arts.

Most of the books produced at Akbar's imperial workshop were written in Persian, the official court language. These texts are royal histories, epics, and poetic narratives drawn from the literature of the Persian world. Surprisingly, although the Razmnama is written in Persian, its subject does not emerge from the Persian literary tradition. Rather, it is a translation of the Mahabharata, one of the great epics of Hinduism. Akbar himself commissioned scholars to abridge and translate this essential Hindu text so that it would be more widely accessible.

However, this Razmnama is more than a text. It also includes many exquisite and elaborate illustrations. In Akbar's imperial atelier, artists recruited directly from the Persian Safavid court worked side by side with Central Asian and Indian artists, often collaborating on the same manuscripts. In addition, many imported European prints and painting entered the Mughal collection during the late sixteenth century and artists adapted selected European characteristics, such as the illusion of depth through shading, into their own work.

Thus, in both text and illustrations, the Razmnama speaks to the diverse cultural, religious, and linguistic character of the Mughal court. The text represents the effort of a Muslim ruler to understand the foundations of Hinduism, so deeply rooted in his kingdom; the images herald the creation of a new artistic language.

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