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Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts from the Indian Subcontinent

CAT. NO. 26

The Padshahnama (‘Book of Emperors’) by Abd al-Hamid Lahori Mughal, 1656–7

Manuscript written in nasta’liq script on gold-flecked brown paper; two shamsas and an illuminated double-page frontispiece; 8 double-page and 24 single-page paintings in opaque watercolour including metallic paints and gold leaf with decorative incising; all set into margins ornamented with metallic paints; painted and lacquered binding | 239 fols; 58.6 × 36.8 cm (text 34.6 × 19.0 cm) | RCIN 1005025

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Jahangir was succeeded by his third son, Prince Khurram, who ascended the Mughal throne as Emperor Shah-Jahan (r. 1628–58). The Padshahnama (‘Book of Emperors’) is a contemporary chronicle commissioned by Shah-Jahan as a propagandist celebration of his reign and dynasty. Written by the court historian Abd al-Hamid of Lahore, the objective of the text was to proclaim the political and ideological legitimacy of the Emperor’s rule. Shah-Jahan was born on the eve of the Islamic millennium and projected himself as a great redeemer, believed to come into existence at the beginning of every millennium to stamp out rebellion and ignorance in the world.[86] The Persian text is a combination of prose and verse written in an ornate style full of complex allegory and flowery metaphors. The author’s preface describes it as ‘an adorned text, the description of which fills the listener’s dress with jewels’.[87] Numerous copies of the Padshahnama were written during Shah-Jahan’s lifetime for presentation to princes and nobles, and early drafts exist containing corrections and amendments in his hand.[88] This manuscript in the Royal Collection is unique, being the only contemporary illustrated imperial Padshahnama volume to survive. It contains only the first of the three volumes which make up the text. Following a long introduction recounting the Mughal imperial genealogy from Timur to Jahangir, the greater part of the manuscript is a discourse on the first decade of Shah-Jahan’s rule (1628–38) and ends with an epilogue listing in order of hierarchy the nobles, officials and religious figures who feature in the narrative.[89]

This volume was written by the calligrapher Muhammad Amin of Mashhad in 1067 AH (AD 1656–7).[90] Within months of Muhammad Amin completing his transcription of this volume, Shah-Jahan fell ill, an occurrence which proved the fateful catalyst for a war of succession between his sons, each then posted as governors of Mughal provinces. In the end, Prince Aurangzeb forced his father to abdicate and seized the throne for himself. Shah-Jahan lived for another nine years imprisoned in the Agra Fort. To what extent the Emperor retained access to his artists and library during this time is unknown. The decorative heading of the opening page of the Royal Library’s Padshahnama manuscript was only outlined and never illuminated, which would suggest a cessation of the manuscript’s embellishment at that point. The calligrapher left spaces for 42 paintings, but it is unclear when the paintings and the two double-page frontispieces (which are not painted on the reverse sides of the text folios, as customary, but pasted in separately), were added. The manuscript’s outer borders, ornamented with the same design of freehand gold illumination throughout, its painted lacquer covers and cover sheets all date to the early to mid-eighteenth century.[91] Some art historians have dated some of the unascribed paintings in the Padshahnama manuscript to the early eighteenth century,[92] though the majority can confidently be attributed to Shah-Jahan’s artists during the 1630s, 1640s and 1650s, and include a number of his painters’ self-portraits. They depict significant events in the Emperor’s life – magnificent durbars, lavish processions, glorious victories on the battlefield – but it is unlikely that they were specifically painted for this particular manuscript.[93] They are nevertheless all appropriate to the text they accompany.

Like his father Jahangir, Shah-Jahan personally oversaw the work of his artists and artisans, holding daily morning meetings to inspect their masterworks.[94] In the same way that metaphors of imperial power and hierarchy abound in the literature he commissioned, the Emperor’s painters presented him with allegorical and idealised visions of Shah-Jahani rule. Although using an established visual system depicting relationships through placement, gazes and symbols, formal conventions of realism and illusion were brought to new levels to create a world of imperial analogy beyond the visual world in these works. The luminous colours, sparkling gold and extraordinary detail all play a role in reflecting the glory and opulence of Shah-Jahan’s court. In the portrayals of durbar assemblies (see cat. nos 2930), the same composition is repeated with the Emperor at the top of the central axis, presiding over the rigid ceremonial from the jharokha balcony – a visual metaphor of the centralised Mughal state in which all power was invested in the body of the emperor.[95] Similarly, scenes of battles and hunting successes (see cat. no. 31) all follow a visual framework of hierarchy and subordination to make manifest the all-pervading authority of the emperor.

  • [86] For the messianic self-fashioning of the Mughals see Moin 2012, esp. pp. 211–12.

    [87] RCIN 1005025, fol. 3v: see Baburi 2012, p. 141, note 4.

    [88] See Storey 1927–39, vol. 2, pp. 575–7. An abridged, more lucid version of the text, known as the Shah-Jahan Nama, was completed by Inayat Khan in the late 1650s.

    [89] RCIN 1005025, fols 198r–239v.

    [90] The colophon on fol. 239r reads ‘the slave the poor / the sinful Muhammad Amin al-Mashhadi’. Dedications to the Emperor are noticeably absent. Bakhtavar Khan’s history of the first ten years of Awrangzeb’s reign (see Mirat al-Alam, vol. II, p. 489) recorded that the calligrapher ‘transcribed the Padshahnama of His Majesty the firdaus-ashiyani [‘dweller in paradise’] with exceeding beauty [for which he] was elevated with favours and rewards’. It is not however known whether he is referring to this manuscript or others, or whether he completed all three volumes.

    [91] The manuscript’s spine is decorated with the same designs in gold as are found on many of the borders of RCIN 1005068 (cat. no. 37). Whether the current margins and covers replaced earlier ones is unknown. Baburi 2010 suggests the manuscript’s current form dates to the reign of Farrukh-Siyar (r. 1713–19), who saw himself as the second Shah-Jahan, naming his own history ‘the Padshahnama of Farrukh-Siyar’. Shamsas in manuscripts completed for Shah-Jahan usually had an imperial inscription or seal impression at the centre, a feature noticeably absent from these examples. Only four, now largely obscured, seal impressions (on the shamsa folios and reverse of the final folio) were made on the manuscript prior to its purchase by Asaf-al Daula, the Nawab of Awadh, c.1778. It was common for imperial seals and inscriptions to be removed from manuscripts formerly in the imperial library after much of its contents was looted and sold off. For various discussions of the dating see Baburi 2012; Beach and Koch 1997; Barrett and Gray 1963.

    [92] In particular Verma 1994, pp. 335–8.

    [93] Some paintings which form double-page openings were not necessarily intended as pairs, as evident in the discrepancies in their relative sizes and adherence to the text.

    [94] Padshahnama, translated by Wheeler Thackston in Koch 1997, pp. 131–2.

    [95] Koch 1997.

  • Presented to George III by Lord Teignmouth, Governor-General of India, c.1798

  • Bibliographic reference(s)

    Baburi 2012; Beach and Koch 1997; Komala 1982