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Eastern Encounters pattern
Eastern Encounters

Drawn from the Royal Library's collection of South Asian books and manuscripts

CAT. NO. 33

Prince Awrangzeb facing a maddened elephant named Sudhakar (7 June 1633)

Mughal, <i>c</i>.1635

Fol. 134r from a manuscript of the Padshahnama (see cat. no. 26) Painting in opaque watercolour including gold and silver metallic paints with decorative incising on paper; set into margins of gold metallic paint on paper with black ink seal impression | 36.8 × 58.2 cm (folio); 24.6 × 40.2 cm (image) | RCIN

The only landscape-format painting in the Padshahnama manuscript, this image symbolises the strength and vigour of the Mughal dynasty as Shah-Jahan observes his son Aurangzeb thrust a spear into the trunk of a charging elephant. In recognition of his bravery, which in the text is linked to the Emperor’s own display of prowess when he killed a lion as a prince, Shah-Jahan awarded Aurangzeb the title bahadur (‘champion’).[125] The Emperor beholds the scene from his piebald horse on the left, flanked by the imperial insignia of the parasol and sunshade. Aurangzeb and Sudakar the elephant take centre stage, eyes locked, as the Prince deals his blow.[126]

According to the text, the event took place along the wide banks of the River Jumna at Agra on 7 June 1633, when the water level was at its lowest before the monsoon rains.[127] The Emperor watched fights between war elephants on most days, a pastime which, like hunting lions, was an imperial privilege. On this occasion, Shah-Jahan and his sons watched the fight from the haveli (mansion) to the north of the fort in which he had lived as a prince and later gave to Aurangzeb. As customary, the two imperial elephants were intoxicated before being brought together to fight. During the contest they moved out of view back towards the fort, and the Emperor ordered that horses be fetched so that he and the Princes could continue to follow the action. When they got near, the elephant named Sudakar ‘made mighty charges and violent motions’ and ran in the direction of Prince Aurangzeb.[128] In the painting, Sudakar’s mahut has dropped a log at the end of a long chain tied to the elephant’s foot designed to make the beast trip, but without effect.[129] Aurangzeb stood his ground, firmly clenching his reins, as the elephant came near and, according to the text, thrust a spear into the animal’s forehead. The painting truthfully shows blood leaking from the elephant’s forehead but depicts, perhaps fictitiously, the Prince spearing its trunk so that the animal and Aurangzeb are shown with their eyes level.

As suggested on the right of the painting, the discharge of fireworks to drive the elephants back created a smoke so dense that it was almost impossible for the foot soldiers to see, which is why two in the central group have tripped over.[130] Just above Aurangzeb, Prince Shah-Shuja gallops to his brother’s aid but his horse spooks at a firework. Both he and Aurangzeb fell from their saddles but were pulled from harm’s way by Mirza Rajah Jai Singh I of Amber, shown here lance in hand at the lower right corner.

Attributed to the artist Govardhan (see cat. no. 22), this is the least colourful painting in the manuscript and one of the very few to depict shadows, the single light source apparently  the Emperor’s gleaming aureole. The artist also uses colour perspective to separate the fore-, middle- and backgrounds, the blue tinge of the distant garden pavilions almost fading into the horizon.[131] In striking contrast to the bold depiction of the key figures, the almost ghostly foot soldiers dressed in white are barely visible through the smoky fireworks, a wonderful play of illusionism which heightens the sense of confusion on the ground while the mounted members of the imperial family appear resolute and steadfast. 

  • [125] See painting on fol. 135, RCIN; Shah-Jahan Nama, p. 148.

    [126] For a drawing of this see Sotheby’s, 11 April 1988, lot 16. For other paintings of the same episode see Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (Fraser 2017, pp. 56–7) and Baroda Museum, Vadodara (Gangoly 1961, pl. III).

    [127] Ebba Koch has identified the area in the background as the Moti Bagh containing the garden pavilion known as the Moti Mahal (‘Pearl Palace’) built by Nur Jahan. The building on the far right is probably the haveli of Azam Khan. See Koch 2006, p. 54.

    [128] Padshahnama, translated by Wheeler Thackston in Koch 1997, p. 72.

    [129] Koch 1997, p. 186.

    [130] Shah-Jahan Nama, p. 96.

    [131] See Koch 1997, p. 186. 

  • Bibliographic reference(s)

    Beach and Koch 1997, pp. 72–3, 185–7

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