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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 12

An elephant hunt by Dhanraj Mughal, c.1600

A composite page: black ink and watercolour including gold metallic paint on light brown paper; set into narrow margins of gold metallic paint on orange paper and wide margins of gold metallic paint on light brown paper | 37.0 × 23.8 cm (folio); 17.9 × 9.4 cm (panel) | RCIN 1005042

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This small but finely executed painting demands close and unhurried viewing to appreciate the minutiae of detail and images within images which were considered a mark of great accomplishment in Mughal painting. In the foreground, a group of hunters attempt to capture four wild elephants. Some ride tame elephants or horses; others are scrambling on foot or hanging from trees. One of the wild elephants has wrapped its trunk tightly around a horse’s leg, thrusting its tusk into the animal’s hind quarter. The legs of the horse’s terrified rider are crushed below it, and hunters use spears and arrows to drive the elephant back.
Wild elephants were hunted by the Mughals with the aim that, once tamed, they would join the royal stables. It was a sport that the Emperor Akbar himself enjoyed but one fraught with danger, as recorded in an account of one such hunt which took place near the Gwalior Fort in 1564: ‘That day after a great chase a female elephant was seen in the distance. They hastened after it, and having tired it out, they bound it to another elephant. As they were doing so, Adham, the son of Mullah Kitabdar [the Librarian], fell into the clutches of the elephant and was kneaded somewhat but managed to crawl away.’[32]
The artist, Dhanraj, has drawn the elephants with extraordinary delicacy, finely stippled in subtle shades of grey and pink. They have a rounded fleshiness betraying an intimate, first-hand knowledge of his subject. At first seemingly chaotic, the composition in fact has a geometric basis, divided into three distinct registers, each carefully balanced so that the eye snakes in curves from side to side from the bottom left to top right of the painting. At the very top, in a motif taken from Iranian painting, the artist has disguised tiny animal heads in the contours of the rock as a visual reward for those who have taken time to journey through the scene.
Gold highlights, added for the elephant handlers’ goads and for the bells jangling around the tamed elephants’ necks, retain their original sparkle. The silver pigment applied by the artist has however tarnished. Similarly, the brown-green areas are likely to be a copper pigment, the original pale green appearance of which has considerably darkened.[33]
  • malek-e tomas saheb / the property of Master Thomas. 

    amal-e dhanraj / the work of Dhanraj

  • [32] Akbarnama, vol. 2, p. 342.

    [33] For a similar example of this, see ‘Prince Salim Hunting a Lion’, cat. no. 130 in Soudavar 1992, pp. 322–3. 

  • Entered the Royal Collection by 1728