An Illustrated History of a Mughal Emperor

The opulent paintings in the “King of the World” exhibition bring the reign of the Taj Mahal builder to life and incite a passion for learning

Ahmad Lahauri is believed to have been the main architect of the Taj Mahal.
Ahmad Lahauri is believed to have been the main architect of the Taj Mahal. Wikimedia Commons

Occasionally, I have devoted this column to a Smithsonian exhibition that has had a special personal impact. "King of the World: A Mughal Manuscript from the Royal Library, Windsor Castle" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is one of these. It consists of paintings from a book celebrating the first ten years of the reign (1628-58) of the Mughal emperor Shah-Jahan of India. The manuscript was given to George III in the 18th century by the Nawab of Oudh, a ruler in eastern India, and has reposed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle since the early 1830s. It has rarely been seen, and the occasion of this exhibition is the needed rebinding of the book. Milo Beach, director of the Freer and Sackler galleries, and a noted historian who has specialized in Islamic art and had studied the manuscript in detail some time ago, was asked to curate the exhibition and to cowrite the extraordinary volume that accompanies it. When the exhibition closes at the Sackler in mid-October, it will travel to New York City, Los Angeles, Fort Worth and Indianapolis. Be on the lookout for it.

Why do I find it so special? First is the quality of the paintings, which document special events in Shah-Jahan's reign. (He, by the way, commissioned the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his wife Mumtaz.) They are done in meticulous detail and depict court ceremonies, hunts, weddings, battles and, quite notably, the beheading of a traitor. One can spend hours with the exhibition, most profitably with a magnifying glass to discover details otherwise overlooked. Bloodstains on the flies buzzing around the severed heads in the painting noted above are an example. The manuscript's illustrators, Beach explained, were not unlike 19th or 20th century court photographers, documenting all important events of the emperor's reign, the ceremonial and grisly alike.

The second reason for my special enthusiasm is an aftermath of my visit to the exhibition. Milo Beach's vivid explanations prodded me to begin filling an enormous gap in my knowledge of the histories of India, Pakistan, the countries that border them on the north and west, and the spatial and temporal extents of the triumphs of Genghis Khan and his successors, including Timur, a direct ancestor of Shah-Jahan. I spent a number of hours with encyclopedia articles and have graduated to the first autobiography in Islamic literature--the Baburnama, the memoir of Babur, the first Mughal emperor. A recent translation by Wheeler Thackston was published by the Freer and Sackler in 1996. Babur's sphere of influence in modern terms included the huge area of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and northern India. He founded in 1526 what became the Mughal empire of India, and it lasted until 1858 under the rulership of many successors, one of whom was Shah-Jahan. I am only partway through the memoir as I write this column, but my enthusiasm is undiminished and could well be the beginning of a long-term interest.

The point of this narrative is evident. Museums fill many roles. An important one is to exhibit objects in a rich historical context that both educates and stimulates the viewer to continue to learn. Museums have the special advantage of authentic displays that focus the attention of most viewers in a way that surpasses words and illustrations. In "King of the World," we see the actual 17th century paintings, with accompanying text, that begin our trip of both imagination and comprehension.

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