Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Roundel with Repeated Inscription

Object Name:
late 16th century
Made in India, Deccan, probably Hyderabad
Wood, gesso, painted and metal-leafed with gold and silver
Diam. 19 7/8 in. (50.5 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Richard S. Perkins and Alastair B. Martin Gifts and Rogers Fund, 1991
Accession Number:
Not on view
This roundel is inscribed with two of the ninety-nine names of God, al-haqq (the truth), and al-qayyum (the everlasting). The remains of red, blue, yellow, and green paint on this example indicate an originally vibrant palette of decoration. Calligraphic roundels are found on the spandrels of the arched portals, niches, and interior walls of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Deccani buildings, such as at the early seventeenth century Badshahi 'Ashurkhana in Hyderabad.

In the buildings commissioned by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (reigned 1580–1612) for his majestic capital city, there is a penchant for rich detail in materials of contrasting texture and scale—their lime-plastered walls are replete with ornament in wood, stucco, and tile that lends depth and hue to the structure. Wood roundels similar to this example can still be found in buildings like the Badshahi Ashurkhana [fig. 75, Wood Calligraphic Roundel, Badshahi Ashurkhana (Royal Mourning House), Hyderabad, 1591], but whereas the roundels in situ have recently been covered in washes of gold and white paint, this piece retains some of its original polychromy, subtly varied between the central area with writing and the surrounding sunburst pattern.

Mirror writing, a calligraphic specialty in the Deccan, became popular for architectural inscriptions and the decoration of objects in the seventeenth century, as found at the mosque of the Sheikhpet Sarai, near Golconda. In the eighteenth century, mirror writing was creatively deployed to make images such as lions and faces in compositions on paper. On this roundel, the phrases, invoking two of the ninety-nine names of God, are repeated around the central medallion in four units in which the inscription is written once forward and once mirror-reversed. The letters themselves are arranged around the repeated word ya, in which the letter alif provides a tall vertical stroke.

Marika Sardar in (Haidar and Sardar 2015)

Carved sandstone and painted-wood calligraphic roundels like these examples are typically found on the spandrels of the arched portals, niches, and interior walls of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century buildings in the Deccan region of India. The carved inscription in thuluth script on MMA no. 1985.240.1 repeats "Ya ‘Aziz," one of the asma al-husna (ninety-nine names of God), eight times in mirror image. The roundel is stylistically related to several carved black basalt examples on the spandrels of the late sixteenth-century Qutb Shahi guesthouse Shaikhpet Sarai (caravanserai) in Hyderabad, built under Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (1580–1611).[1] Similar painted roundels in crimson, brown, and gold outlined in black are also found in the southern hallway of the Bahmanid tomb of Ahmad Shah Wali (r. 1422–36) at Ashtur, near Bidar, which may have served as an earlier source of inspiration for the later examples.[2] The presence of traces of red pigments on the Museum’s sandstone example suggests that it was also once painted in a similar palette.

A carved-wood roundel, MMA no. 1991.233, from the first half of the seventeenth century contains two of the asma al-husna, first written vertically and then in mirror image and repeated eight times around the roundel. The composition springs from two rows of flamelike lappets. Remains of red, blue, yellow, and green paint on this roundel, as well as gold and possibly silver leaf, indicate an originally vibrant palette of decoration, which was likely refinished periodically. While not many wood roundels survive, this one is related to a group of now heavily repainted examples affixed to the upper walls of the Badshahi ‘Ashurkhana in Hyderabad (a Shi‘i shrine commemorating the martyrdom at Karbala of Husain, the Prophet’s grandson, erected in 1593–96 with tiles added in 1611), also built under the patronage of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah.[3] The building is well known for its large, fine, cut-tile mosaic decoration, particularly the tear-shaped medallions and images of ‘alams (Shi‘i processional standards) in a distinct Deccani palette covering its interior walls. In fact, a number of the cut-tile mosaic calligraphic medallions on the two sides of the central niche containing the ‘alams resemble the carved sandstone and basalt roundels discussed here.

Although calligraphic roundels in mirror image are primarily found on architecture, they are also seen in other media, such as metal ‘alams, several of which are preserved in the Badshahi ‘Ashurkhana. In a few isolated cases, they appear as illuminations on album pages, as seen in a gold calligraphic roundel in mirror image that is outlined in black and framed by inscriptions containing a hadith of Imam ‘Ali in praise of fine penmanship.[4]

Calligraphic roundels are not exclusive to the Deccan or northern India. They are found on the exteriors and interiors of buildings as early as the fourteenth century as far west as Egypt and Turkey[5] and as far east as Iran. However, the compositional characteristics of Deccan examples distinguish them from the others in their persistent use of calligraphy in mirror image (muthanna).[6]

Although the origins of this form remain unclear, the type probably entered the Deccan from Iran and Ottoman Turkey in the fifteenth century with the influx into the region of talented Iranian Ottoman calligraphers, painters, and artisans. The work of these artists was eventually assimilated into the local aesthetic, giving rise to an extended period of creativity and intense artistic exchange that endured into the seventeenth century—as seen in these two Qutb Shahi roundels from Hyderabad.

Maryam Ekhtiar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]


1. I would like to thank Marika Sardar for sharing images of this building with me.

2. See Yazdani, G[hulam]. Bidar: Its History and Monuments. London, 1947. For a detailed discussion of this structure, see Philon, Helen. “The Murals in the Tomb of Ahmad Shah near Bidar.” Apollo 152, no. 465 (2000), pp. 3–10.

3. See, for example, Michell, George, ed. Islamic Heritage of the Deccan. Bombay, 1986, chapter on Gulbarga, fig. 17, chapter on Bidar, fig. 11, and chapter on Bijapur, fig. 10. I am grateful to my colleague Navina Haidar for sharing the photographs of these buildings, and her expertise, with me.

4. Sotheby’s Doha, Hurouf: The Art of the Word, December 16, 2010, p. 116, lot 89.

5. Calligraphic roundels and other architectural elements in mirror image are seen as early as 1385 in Artuqid buildings in Mardin, Turkey, and later in Ottoman mosque architecture, such as the Uç Serefeli Mosque (1438–47) in Edirne. For other Ottoman examples, see a carved marble panel from the qibla wall of a sabil, or fountain, and a woven silk textile panel with niches and suspended mosque lamps in O’Kane, Bernard, ed. The Treasures of Islamic Art in the Museums of Cairo. Cairo and New York, 2006, p. 217, fig. 184, and pp. 212–13.

6. See Yazdani 1947 (reference in note 2 above).
Inscription: Inscription in Arabic in naskhi script repeated eight times, of which four appear
in mirror image:
يا حي يا قيوم
O, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsisting
[ John Lawrence Fine Arts Inc., London, until 1991; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Balcony Calligraphy Exhibition," June 1, 2009–October 26, 2009, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy," April 20, 2015–July 26, 2015, no. 111.

Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 50 (1991–1992). p. 16, ill. (b/w).

Walker, Daniel S., Marie Lukens Swietochowski, and Annemarie Schimmel. "Recent Acquisitions: A Selection, 1991-1992." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 50 (Fall 1992). p. 16, ill. (b/w).

Ekhtiar, Maryam, Sheila R. Canby, Navina Haidar, and Priscilla P. Soucek, ed. Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1st ed. ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011. no. 278B, pp. 8, 390-392, ill. p. 391 (color).

Haidar, Navina, and Marika Sardar. "Opulence and Fantasy." In Sultans of Deccan India 1500–1700. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. no. 111, p. 218, ill. pl. 111 (color).

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