Mughal decorative art incorporated abundant floral imagery

Taj_MahalThe Mughals, who began to rule the Indian Subcontinent in 1526, built a magnificent empire, inaugurating the most glorious period in the history of Islam. During their 330-year reign, the Mughals developed a reputation for their wealth, tolerance, and intellectual and artistic pursuits. As patrons of art and architecture, the Mughals built the most magnificent monuments on the Indian landscape. The decorative arts of the Mughal period utilized imagery from the natural world. Flora and fauna played an important role in Mughal art.

Gardens within Bagh-e-Babur. Kabul, Afghanistan were redeveloped by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Gardens within Bagh-e-Babur. Kabul, Afghanistan were redeveloped by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Babur (r. 1526-1530), the founder of the dynasty and a prince from Central Asia whose life style was semi-nomadic, followed the practice of his ancestors to establish courts in gardens from which they would rule and entertain. One of Babur’s first initiatives in South Asia was to establish a garden, a practice his successors continued with increased grandeaur. Literary records of the interests of Humayun, the second Mughal Emperor (r.1530-40; 50-56), and his successor, Akbar (r.1556-1605) are filled with detailed descriptions of flowers in bloom and various forest animals in lush forest settings with deciduaous trees.

Mughal jewellery box, 17th century, with multi-coloured floral decoration characteristic of Mughal art
Mughal jewellery box, 17th century, with multi-coloured floral decoration characteristic of Mughal art (Image: Islam Art and Architecture)

During the reign of Jahangir, (r. 1605-27), the decorative arts incorporated abundant floral imagery, inspired by flower-filled valleys that Emperor Jahangir witnessed during his trip to Kashmir in 1620. Subsequently, the Jahangiri style of art developed in which the representation of flowers greatly increased and the colours were brighter than they had been previously.

In the sixteenth century, Mughal art focused on South Asian and Persian designs. In the Indian subcontinent, forms from nature have been carved in stone and wood for centuries. From Persian, the design of winding, interwoven spirals were used on all media. In the early seventeenth century, Mughal design shifted from the Persian idealized floral motifs to natural ones, perhaps due to the travelling Europeans who brought with them paintings and books that intrigued the Mughal artists, who adopted the naturalism articulated in the botanical books; a brilliant artistic tradition developed from this blending of cultures.

Pen box
Mughal pen box, c. 1650, containing a knife to cut the reed, a stylus handle and a spoon to measure the ingredients for ink. (Image: Islam Art and Architecture)

Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58) continued his father’s love of floral imagery, making flowers the primary element. Flowers moved from the border into the central part of the paintings, carpets, and textiles, codifying formal portraits of flowering plants as a dynastic motif that was used for the next two centuries. The marble inlay at the Taj Mahal, built in 1632–1653 demonstrates Shah Jahan’s preference of flowers as a primary subject.

Althoug Aurangzeb continued the tradition of the arts, the quality of decorative arts began to decline towards the end of his reign as a result of political instabily causing the exodus of artists who had flourished at the courts. The decline continued in the mid-nineteenth century due to the lack of resources and stagnant creativity.

Philippa Vaughan, “Indian Subcontinent: from Sultanate to Mughal Empire.” Islam: Art and Architecture Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius. Konemann, 2000
Stephen Markel, The Use of Flora and Fauna Imagery in Mughal Decorative Arts (Accessed June 2015)

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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