When Akbar set off from Attock Fort on the Indus in 1586, it was believed that he was finally returning to the capital at Fatehpur Sikri. Instead, the Mughal retinue stopped at Lahore and Akbar would remain in the city for a dozen years, anchoring it forever in the Mughal imagination and bolting it onto Hindustan’s expansive scaffolding. It would remain a great Mughal city and the cultural heart of the Punjab till 1748 when it was captured by the Afghans.

Salim, who was travelling to Lahore with his father, would be particularly enchanted with the city and would live there many years when he became Padshah. His wife, Noor Jahan, is believed to have said; ‘We have purchased Lahore with our soul; we have given our life and bought another Paradise.’ Both Salim and Noor Jahan would be buried in Lahore, and Noor Jahan’s family, especially, would cleave the city to their legacy through extensive architectural commissions. 

Monserrate, arriving in Lahore in 1582, wrote of a lively and thriving city, fragrant with perfumes: 

This city is second to none, either in Asia or in Europe, with regard to size, population and wealth. It is crowded with merchants, who gather there from all over Asia. In all these respects, it excels other cities, as also in the huge quantity of every kind of merchandise which is imported. Moreover there is no art or craft useful to human life which is not practised there. The population is so large that men jostle each other in the streets.

The citadel alone, which is built of brickwork laid in cement, has a circumference of nearly three miles. Within this citadel is a bazaar which is protected against the sun in summer and the rain in winter by a high-pitched wooden roof—a design whose clever execution and practical utility should call for imitation. Perfumes are sold in this bazaar and the scent in the early morning is most delicious…most of the citizens are wealthy Brahmans and Hindus of every caste, especially Kashmiri. These Kashmiri[s] are bakers, eating-house keepers, and sellers of second-hand rubbish…. 

Writing magnanimously about the weather and the fruit, Abu’l Fazl mentioned that ‘musk melons are to be had throughout the whole year’, a detail that would have delighted Akbar’s grandfather, Babur. ‘When the season is over, they are imported from Kashmir and from Kabul, Badakhshan and Turkestan. Snow is brought down every year from the northern mountains.’

The availability of snow and ice was one of the great luxuries of the court at Lahore. These were transported from the mountains north of Lahore, and brought to the capital every day by boats, carriages, and runners.

The most profitable way was to bring down the ice by river, in boats manned by four oarsmen. When carriages were used, the journey was accomplished in fourteen stages, with horses changed at each stage. A total of 50 to 120 kilograms of ice and snow arrived every day, depending on the season. While noblemen were able to afford ice all year round, the lower ranks only bought it in the hot summers.

As the empire had expanded dramatically in the first thirty years of Akbar’s rule, bringing into the Mughal fold the rich provinces of Gujarat and Bengal, had gained its access to the sea, which helped it economically. In the kar khanas that were promoted enthusiastically,

‘Akbar promoted textile manufacture for foreign markets, building roads that connected Mughal weavers’ workshops to seaports and abolishing inland tolls and duties’.

The goods were sent to China, Arabia, Abyssinia,  and Europe; the Europeans were able to pay for the precious silks and cottons with silver mined in South America and the cities of the empire grew prosperous. 

Placed along the major route leading to Central Asia, Lahore was clearly therefore already a thrumming city by the time Akbar decided to stop here instead of moving back to Fatehpur Sikri.

The Padshah rebuilt the fort of the city which became known as the Shahi Qila. It included a rampart with twelve gates, an audience hall, personal living quarters, and a zenana.

It is likely that Akbar’s court miniaturists and artists decorated the Padshah’s quarters and the zenana. There would, however, be no inferno of building as there had been in Fatehpur Sikri.

No layered palaces, or inscrutable minars, or intimidating expanses of stone. Akbar’s great building days were over and it would be royal family members, and the courtiers of the empire, who would take on the task of architectural patronage. 

‘Throughout Akbar’s reign,’ writes urban studies scholar William Glover, ‘court nobles were encouraged to build palaces, gardens, and religious institutions in and around the city, and Lahore grew rapidly both in extent and population.’

Even outside the walls of Lahore, there were vast tracts covered in ‘richly designed mosques, tombs, havelis and gardens of the aristocracy’, though sadly no traces of these buildings remain today.

Within the city walls, bazaars were built along the main roads, highly specialised according to the commodity sold. Incense and religious books were sold near the mosques, leather workers supplying book bindings were located nearby, as also the slipper bazaar.

Further away were the cloth and embroidery bazaars as well as the jewellers, while furthest away were bazaars dealing in bulk commodities too cumbersome to convey through the narrow pedestrian streets such as wholesale grain and spices, wool, pottery, fresh products etc.

Future generations of Padshahs and their families would add to the landscape and by the time Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, came to power the mythic Shalimar Gardens would be built and Lahore would become the City of Gardens.

The walled city of Lahore was built by the river Ravi, with the Shahi Qila overlooking the vast and busy river. There was a bridge of boats constructed over the river and a steady stream of vessels sailed up and down the Ravi, ‘constantly carrying an infinity of supplies’.

Across from the Shahi Qila was a huge tented encampment, where merchants from different countries brought their goods to sell to the people at the court in the city. There was a small mud island in the middle of the river where, every morning at dawn, crowds thronged to make their daily darshan of Akbar following which there would be animal fights arranged on the sandy banks to amuse the crowds and the Padshah.

If in Lahore Akbar was no longer as enthusiastic a patron of architecture, his devotion to miniature paintings remained undiminished. There was a change, nonetheless, in the type of works that the taswir khanas at Lahore would produce at this time.

From the earlier large works that had been created, the focus would now be on a few volumes of Persian poetry, produced to a high degree of perfection, known as de luxe manuscripts.

These small but exquisitely finished works, as perfect as a single liquid note of a nightingale, were produced using the very best artists and the purest and highest quality products of the land.

There were new additions to the ranks of painters, local men with names like Ibrahim Lahori, Kalu Lahori, and the talented calligrapher,

Muhammad Husayn al-Kashmiri, known as Zarrin Qalam (Golden Pen). In addition to these newer artists at work in Akbar’s studios there were some of the most talented painters of the time, at the peak of their artistic powers.

Artists like Miskin, so compassionate in his paintings of animals that he captured not only their physical exertions and muscularity but even their inner, desperate fears. And Basawan, who perfected his art at the Mughal court over more than thirty years, using his ‘psychologically acute… characterizations, painterliness, three-dimensional treatment of space, and swelling roundness of form’ to create works of astounding realism and subtlety.

There would have been Manohar Das, too, Basawan’s young son, around Salim’s age, who would have carefully observed Akbar and all the formidable courtiers at Lahore, and who would paint tender and vulnerable images of the ageing Padshah in the following decades.

Manohar grew up observing and adopting each changing nuance in the artistic tenor of the court, and while not possessing the genius of some of the greatest artists, he stands out ‘as a humble, painterly artist whose arabesques and drapery cavort and ripple with released vitality and express the joy he found in his work’.

The art historian John Seyller has argued that Basawan began promoting Manohar as an artist around this time.

There is a portrait of Manohar that has survived. It shows a smooth-faced, large-eyed, and slightly chubby young boy dated to this period believed to be one of only three self-portraits of sixteenth-century Mughal India. Seyller believes this was in fact a joint work between father and son,

Basawan wishing to promote the talents of his son, probably not imagining that his son’s fame would far outshine his at the courts of Jahangir and then Shah Jahan. And then there were outliers, like Farrukh Husain, a Persian painter at the Safavid court who left Isfahan to first work at Mirza Hakim’s court at Kabul.

Considered by art historians to be one of the most underrated artists of Mughal painting, he joined the Mughal court in 1585, when he was already a mature forty-year-old artist. He was much admired and given the title Farrukh Beg. At the Mughal court,

Farrukh Beg was initially paired up with the artists Dharmadas and Dhanraj, to work on the Khamsa of Nizami. However, after this work, it was understood that Farrukh Beg preferred to work alone and this contemplative, enigmatic, and singular artist was allowed the quite exceptional privilege from 1586–96, to work on illustrations on his own.

He created works of remarkable sophistication and delicacy, with a clear penchant for lissom youths and swaying cypresses. His signature element was to add a large chinar tree somewhere within his compositions, to add drama, perspective, or symbology.

The de luxe manuscripts created in Lahore were tiny, meant to be held in the hand and admired closely. They contained only a dozen or so perfect works of art as opposed to the hundreds of paintings in earlier manuscripts. The texts were works of beloved poets such as Amir Khusro, Nizami, and Jami.

Unlike the earlier exuberant and rambunctious works meant to be shared and exclaimed over, these small works were intimate, almost meditative, meant for the intense and visceral enjoyment of the patron, usually the Padshah, and his close family.

One of the finest examples of de luxe manuscripts is the Divan-e-Anvari, a tiny work measuring only 5.5 inches by 2.8 inches, with just fifteen images. Anvari was a twelfth-century poet from Turkmenistan, who is believed to have suffered from gout, leading to understandably caustic and sharp reams such as the following qit’a :

I asked for wine, and you gave me stale vinegar, Such that, should I drink it, I should rise up at the Resurrection like pickled meat… 

Art historian Kavita Singh points out that these de luxe manuscripts, like Anvari’s Divan, indulged in ‘conspicuous luxury’ in all aspects of their making, ‘from the fine, gold-flecked paper and costly pigments used for the books to the superb calligraphy by master calligraphers, and the exquisite margins, elaborate illumination, and fine bindings with which they were decorated’.

Historian Annemarie Schimmel adds the awe-inspiring detail that each figure in the paintings was ‘scarcely larger than an eyelash’, yet managed to convey, possibly for the first time in Mughal art, a sense of a breathing space around the people, animals, and landscape.

It is believed that a reason for the dramatic change in style from the earlier large-scale and boisterous works was the presence at court of Prince Salim, nineteen years old at the time, and as yet not estranged from his father. Salim who had begun drinking wine in increasingly immoderate quantities.

Soon he was drinking twenty cups a day, lacking the iron will and self-discipline of his father. But despite his dissolute ways,

Salim would go on to become a legendary patron and connoisseur of art who claimed to be able to distinguish at a single glance the distinctive brushwork of different painters.

He even wrote with no false modesty whatsoever that in a work involving several painters,

‘I can discover which face is the work of each of them. If any other person has put in the eye and eyebrow of a face, I can perceive whose work the original face is, and who has painted the eye and eyebrow.’ 

The images showcased the unfettered brilliance of artists at the peak of their powers and an empire at its most capacious in terms of wealth and ambition.

The manuscripts were treasured and kept within the imperial library, to be handled with care and admired by each successive emperor. 

These tiny, jewel-bright manuscripts were a new direction for the Mughal taswir khanas but the translation projects begun at Fatehpur Sikri also continued in Lahore.

The first Persian translation of the other famous Hindustani epic, the Ramayana, was undertaken at this time. This was the first illustrated manuscript of the epic. Earlier Rajput versions, if they had existed, would have been destroyed in the storming of Chittor and Gwalior, the major centres of art at that time.

The Mughals understood the epic to be about the trials and tribulations of an ideal Indian monarch, Ram. This had great resonance with Akbar, who rather enjoyed the frequent comparisons that Brahmins made between Vishnu and the Padshah. Badauni had long lamented that Brahmins had told Akbar ‘that he had descended to earth, like Ram, Krishan, and other infidel rulers’.

The particular attributes that Akbar shared with Ram were piquant. ‘He would honor Brahmans,’ wrote Badauni about what the Brahmins were claiming, ‘protect cows, and justly rule the earth.’ And, indeed, Akbar, Hamida Banu, Todar Mal, and Abdur Rahim were all issuing farmans giving land and protection to the temples, priests, and cows of Mathura at this very time.

While the Persian text may have stayed true to the spirit of the original, the images that accompanied the Persian Ramayan were reminiscent of sixteenth-century Mughal India.

According to Truschke, in these images, ‘Rama is dressed in Mughal fashion and has Central Asian facial features, remarkably similar to portrayals of the Emperor in paintings of the Akbarnama.’

Similarly, in his Persian-Sanskrit grammar book, the scholar Krishnadasa describes Akbar in astonishing terms, comparing him with Krishna and marvelling that he protects cows. 

The translated Ramayana proved very popular in courtly circles and more than two dozen Persian versions of it were created over the next three centuries. Hamida Banu owned a copy of it, and Rajput rulers, electrified by these possibilities, responded by creating their own illustrated manuscripts of the Ramayana.

Maharana Jagat Singh of Mewar, Rana Pratap’s great- grandson, who would submit to Jahangir in 1615, commissioned a truly stupendous work in the 1640s comprising a staggering 400 paintings of joyous colour and abandon, many of which were painted by the leading artist of the time, Sahibuddin, a Mewari Muslim.

This Mewar Ramayana is considered the finest and most complete version of this epic ever commissioned by a Hindu patron.

As for Badauni, Akbar’s most prolific translator despite all his many misgivings, though he admitted that the Ramayan was marginally better than the tales of the Mahabharata, he baulked at writing a preface for it. ‘I seek refuge in God from that black book,’ he wrote despairingly, ‘which is as rotten as the book of my life.’

Badauni knew that Akbar would expect from him a work like the preface of the Mahabharata, which Abu’l Fazl had written in lyrical and expansive style, praising the knowledge contained in the Mahabharata and the cross-cultural enterprise undertaken by Akbar.

Unable also to conceive a work in which he would not be allowed to include praise for the Prophet Muhammad, Badauni demurred. 

But now, alongside the eclectic works of translation that were taking place in Lahore, Akbar decided that his empire was finally secure enough for him to begin the monumental texts that would anchor his legacy within the history of Hindustan, the history of Islam, the history of the Timurids, and the history of mankind itself. 

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