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The Floral Empire: Flowers in the Arts of Mughal South Asia

The Floral Empire: Flowers in the Arts of Mughal South Asia

By Nicolas Roth

Nicolas is a PhD student in South Asian Studies working on a dissertation about the garden culture of Mughal India. When not reading seventeenth- and eighteenth-century South Asians' accounts of what they were growing, he is usually trying to grow what they were growing. Please visit him at IG: nic_in_the_garden


  Figure 1: This painting by the artist Manohar shows Emperor Jahāngīr and his prime minister and father-in-law I’timād al-Daulah.While the frame is filled with a wide array of stylized and imaginary flowers delicately outlined in gold, the border behind the two men contains, from left to right, a tall cockscomb (Celosia argentea),  red-and-white and  purple-white opium poppies (Papaver somniferum), blue larkspur (Consolida sp.), red corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas), French marigolds (Tagetes patula), and a common mallow (Malva sylvestris), all rendered in minute, naturalistic detail. “Jahangir and His Vizier, I’timad al-Daula,” by Manohar, c. 1615; Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Figure 1: This painting by the artist Manohar shows Emperor Jahāngīr and his prime minister and father-in-law I’timād al-Daulah.While the frame is filled with a wide array of stylized and imaginary flowers delicately outlined in gold, the border behind the two men contains, from left to right, a tall cockscomb (Celosia argentea),  red-and-white and  purple-white opium poppies (Papaver somniferum), blue larkspur (Consolida sp.), red corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas), French marigolds (Tagetes patula), and a common mallow (Malva sylvestris), all rendered in minute, naturalistic detail. “Jahangir and His Vizier, I’timad al-Daula,” by Manohar, c. 1615; Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Flowers have always had their place in South Asian art, but they were perhaps never as prominent as in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Mughal Empire, originally founded in 1526 when Zahīr al-Dīn Muhammad Bābur (1483-1530), a descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur the Great from Fergana in what is now Uzbekistan, conquered Delhi and Agra, expanded to encompass all but the southernmost reaches of the Indian Subcontinent before slowly declining in favor of numerous local centers of power that carried on and adapted its cultural heritage.

Beginning with the reign of Emperor Jahāngīr (r. 1625-1627), Mughal art and architecture developed new styles quite different from what came before, less beholden to earlier models from both Central Asia and India itself, and imbued with a distinctive form of realism that would be reflected in various ways throughout the region for the next two centuries. Jahāngīr is well known for his passionate interest in plants and animals, and his court painter Mansūr was frequently commissioned to produce detailed and scientifically accurate images of the monarch’s collections of flora and fauna. Unfortunately, very few of Mansūr’s botanical studies survive today. Yet flowering plants increasingly appeared everywhere – as the subject of sophisticated painterly studies in their own right like those executed by Mansūr and in the lush garden settings of many a painted scene, but also as ornamental patterns in the margins of miniatures or calligraphy; adorning walls as murals, pietra dura inlay or mirrorwork, or carved in relief; printed, woven, or embroidered on textiles; carved into jade or rock crystal cups or flasks; forged from metal, pearls, and precious stones on jewelry and weapons – and they were central to socio-cultural practices and ideals.

  Figure 2: An inlay design of colored glass from the City Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan, this piece features four of the most canonical flowers of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century South Asian art: poppies and larkspur, combined as is so often the case, Tazetta narcissi, and irises. The Udaipur-based Rajput royal family of Mewar had a complicated relationship to the Mughal Empire, to some degree resisting the accommodation under its suzerainty and absorption into Mughal military and administrative service that was the fate of other local ruling lineages. Nonetheless, it shared actively in its material and artistic and its taste in flowers and floral ornament. Photograph by author.

Figure 2: An inlay design of colored glass from the City Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan, this piece features four of the most canonical flowers of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century South Asian art: poppies and larkspur, combined as is so often the case, Tazetta narcissi, and irises. The Udaipur-based Rajput royal family of Mewar had a complicated relationship to the Mughal Empire, to some degree resisting the accommodation under its suzerainty and absorption into Mughal military and administrative service that was the fate of other local ruling lineages. Nonetheless, it shared actively in its material and artistic and its taste in flowers and floral ornament. Photograph by author.

  This Mughal jade bowl carved with a semi-double chrysanthemum flower surrounded by a halo of foliage at its base and with two corresponding carved buds as its handles ended up in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) of China, who engraved it with a note recording its origin in "Hindustan" and its style distinct from comparable Chinese works, as well as the cultural significance of the chrysanthemum as the flower of the autumn holiday. "Bowl in the Shape of a Chrysanthemum Flower," Nephrite (Jade) India, eighteenth century; Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This Mughal jade bowl carved with a semi-double chrysanthemum flower surrounded by a halo of foliage at its base and with two corresponding carved buds as its handles ended up in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) of China, who engraved it with a note recording its origin in "Hindustan" and its style distinct from comparable Chinese works, as well as the cultural significance of the chrysanthemum as the flower of the autumn holiday. "Bowl in the Shape of a Chrysanthemum Flower," Nephrite (Jade) India, eighteenth century; Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Mīrzānāmah, a mid-seventeenth-century treatise on how to be a proper mīrzā or aristocratic gentleman, returns to the matter of flowers repeatedly and ties their proper appreciation and use to a man’s character, sophistication, and masculinity. It advises that a gentleman is naturally inclined to appreciate flower gardens and should therefore lay them out wherever possible on his property; that a house without potted plants and vases filled with seasonal bouquets is a house without joy; that a mīrzā ought to be interested in unusual and multicolored flowers and if he wants to smell one he should pluck it himself so as to avoid potential pollution through the touch of someone else; and that he ought not to wear flowers in his turban “for it is a beloved’s [as opposed to a lover’s, i.e. an effeminate] thing to do and a mīrzā takes being an effeminate lover to be a fault” – except perhaps in private a rose because it is the flower of Muhammad, or a sprig of larkspur since it resembles a feather and will look particularly nice.

Larkspur also appears in a passage from the foreword the Mughal courtier Ānand Rām ‘Mukhlis’ (1699-1750) wrote for the album containing his collection of miniature paintings that beautifully encapsulates the way in which floral imagery and knowledge of flowers and horticulture, ideals of cultural sophistication, literary norms, and the visual arts came to be entwined. If the architecture of his [the creator’s] invention had not paid attention to the organization of the album of spring, who would have have arranged margin notes of larkspur for the text of the corn poppy bed? The contrasting combination of tall, dark blue larkspur and luscious red or pink corn or Shirley poppies was and is a popular one in South Asian horticulture; it appears frequently in artwork from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is often referenced in literature from the period. This is part of the botanical and horticultural realism that is such a notable feature of South Asian artwork from this era. There were, to be sure, plenty of floral patterns that were imaginary creations; ironically, many flower motifs that were based on European prints, including some of those used in the ornamentation of the Taj Mahal, are botanical nonsense, combining parts of what are in fact wildly different species or giving fantastical coloring to flowers the artist had clearly never seen in real life. Yet just as often, artists in various media produced acutely observed, clearly recognizable depictions of plants. Interestingly, in doing so they appear to have had clear favorites. Of the enormous wild and cultivated flora of the Indian Subcontinent and the myriad species from the Americas and East Asia that were introduced during Mughal times, some are depicted constantly – among them poppies and larkspur, cockscombs, forms of Narcissus tazetta, and marigolds – but many more appear rarely or never. 

  Even though they occur naturally in South Asia and are very showy, depictions of gloriosa lilies are extremely rare in the Mughal floral repertoire. This perfect rendering of a flower of  Gloriosa superba  is therefore all the more remarkable. It is labeled “zanbaq”, a Persian term applied historically to many different types of lily- and iris-like plants, and oddly the source of the modern scientific name for the entirely un-lily-like Arabian jasmine,  Jasminum sambac . “A Flame Lily,” India, c. 1650; Source: The Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Even though they occur naturally in South Asia and are very showy, depictions of gloriosa lilies are extremely rare in the Mughal floral repertoire. This perfect rendering of a flower of Gloriosa superba is therefore all the more remarkable. It is labeled “zanbaq”, a Persian term applied historically to many different types of lily- and iris-like plants, and oddly the source of the modern scientific name for the entirely un-lily-like Arabian jasmine, Jasminum sambac. “A Flame Lily,” India, c. 1650; Source: The Bodleian Library, Oxford.

  This portrait of a woman, identified in tiny script below her skirt as one Bībī Farzānah, features almost as prominently as the subject herself an exquisitely rendered specimen of pride of Barbados ( Caesalpinia pulcherrima ) as well as  Narcissus tazetta , a small feathery cockscomb, yellow marigolds, white chrysanthemums, a diminutive red species tulip, and a small, difficult to identify plant with a short spike of purple flowers. The last two are cleverly echoed in the floral design of Bībī Farzānah’s trousers and sash, and she holds a flowering narcissus shoot as if she had just plucked it from the clump to her left. “Bibi Ferzana,” Mughal Empire, c. 1675; Source: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

This portrait of a woman, identified in tiny script below her skirt as one Bībī Farzānah, features almost as prominently as the subject herself an exquisitely rendered specimen of pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) as well as Narcissus tazetta, a small feathery cockscomb, yellow marigolds, white chrysanthemums, a diminutive red species tulip, and a small, difficult to identify plant with a short spike of purple flowers. The last two are cleverly echoed in the floral design of Bībī Farzānah’s trousers and sash, and she holds a flowering narcissus shoot as if she had just plucked it from the clump to her left. “Bibi Ferzana,” Mughal Empire, c. 1675; Source: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

  Helpfully labeled gul-i dā’udī or “David’s flower,” the Persian and Urdu/Hindi name of the chrysanthemum, this study portrays a variety not unlike the one carved into the jade cup that ended up at the Chinese court. It is unclear when East Asian chrysanthemums reached South Asia, but small white or yellow semi-double or double forms like this appear to have been common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as they appear frequently in paintings and are mentioned in literature. Occasionally authors even remark on the pink or purple blush that some white varieties take on, as depicted here. Painting from the Small Clive Album, Mughal Empire, first half of the eighteenth century; Source: The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Helpfully labeled gul-i dā’udī or “David’s flower,” the Persian and Urdu/Hindi name of the chrysanthemum, this study portrays a variety not unlike the one carved into the jade cup that ended up at the Chinese court. It is unclear when East Asian chrysanthemums reached South Asia, but small white or yellow semi-double or double forms like this appear to have been common in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as they appear frequently in paintings and are mentioned in literature. Occasionally authors even remark on the pink or purple blush that some white varieties take on, as depicted here. Painting from the Small Clive Album, Mughal Empire, first half of the eighteenth century; Source: The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

  This study beautifully captures what has perhaps become the most iconically “Indian” flower, the African marigold ( Tagetes erecta ), which despite its misleading English common name is actually native to Mexico. It is unknown when exactly it reached South Asia but from the early seventeenth century it and the equally Mexican French marigold ( Tagetes patula ) appear frequently in South Asian art and are commonly referenced in literature, unlike many other new plants that must have reached the region during the same period. Painting from the Small Clive Album, Mughal Empire, Seventeenth Century; Source: The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This study beautifully captures what has perhaps become the most iconically “Indian” flower, the African marigold (Tagetes erecta), which despite its misleading English common name is actually native to Mexico. It is unknown when exactly it reached South Asia but from the early seventeenth century it and the equally Mexican French marigold (Tagetes patula) appear frequently in South Asian art and are commonly referenced in literature, unlike many other new plants that must have reached the region during the same period. Painting from the Small Clive Album, Mughal Empire, Seventeenth Century; Source: The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

  Driving home the immense popularity of poppies in Mughal art, this thin cotton floor spread is printed with fairly realistic poppy plants with red double flowers, and a border with additional double poppy blooms worked into a scroll. “Fragment of a Floor Cover,” possibly from Burhanpur, late seventeenth to early eighteenth century; Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Driving home the immense popularity of poppies in Mughal art, this thin cotton floor spread is printed with fairly realistic poppy plants with red double flowers, and a border with additional double poppy blooms worked into a scroll. “Fragment of a Floor Cover,” possibly from Burhanpur, late seventeenth to early eighteenth century; Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

  The tomb  of I’timād al-Daulah, prime minister under Jahāngīr and father of his favorite wife Nūr Jahān, was constructed by the latter between 1622 and 1628 and is located in a small but beautiful garden enclosure on the banks of the Yamuna River in Agra. The outside of the tomb is covered in pietra dura inlay depicting, among other things, bowls of fruit and bouquets of narcissi; the interior is lavishly covered in floral murals. Prominent among these are these prominent, botanical study-like images of double opium poppies.  Photograph by author.

The tomb  of I’timād al-Daulah, prime minister under Jahāngīr and father of his favorite wife Nūr Jahān, was constructed by the latter between 1622 and 1628 and is located in a small but beautiful garden enclosure on the banks of the Yamuna River in Agra. The outside of the tomb is covered in pietra dura inlay depicting, among other things, bowls of fruit and bouquets of narcissi; the interior is lavishly covered in floral murals. Prominent among these are these prominent, botanical study-like images of double opium poppies.  Photograph by author.

Sometimes regional preferences are discernable as well. Plumerias, for instance, almost never appear in pre-colonial South Asian art - except at the connected Rajput courts of Kota and Bundi in Rajasthan, where from the middle of the seventeenth century, Plumeria rubra var. acutifolia, a distinctive form with cream-and-yellow blossoms that never fully unfurl, appears in the background of virtually every painting, stylized yet identifiable. Much remains to be explored and properly understood regarding the role of flowers and plants in the arts and culture of Mughal South Asia; where they may often fill margins, they are far from mere marginalia.

 

"We are a landscape of all we have seen."

"We are a landscape of all we have seen."

5-10-5: Horticulturist, Garden Designer, Nursery Owner Helen O'Donnell of Bunker Farm

5-10-5: Horticulturist, Garden Designer, Nursery Owner Helen O'Donnell of Bunker Farm