"Great Hornbill", Folio from the Shah Jahan Album,

Painting by Mansur

The emperor Jahangir’s memoirs record many of the animals he encountered while on his annual peregrinations, and the reasons he wanted studies of them to be painted. While we do not have such notes for this painting, we can imagine that Jahangir was intrigued by the creature’s size, with a wingspan of up to five feet, and by the loud droning noise it emitted, audible a mile away.

Not on view

Public Domain

Object Details

Artist: Painting by Mansur (active ca. 1589–1626)

Calligrapher: Mir 'Ali Haravi (d. ca. 1550)

Object Name: Album leaf

Date: recto: ca. 1540; verso: ca. 1615–20

Geography: Attributed to India

Medium: Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper

Dimensions: H. 15 1/4 in. (38.7 cm)
W. 10 1/2 in. (26.7 cm)

Classification: Codices

Credit Line: Purchase, Rogers Fund and The Kevorkian Foundation Gift, 1955

Accession Number: verso–Great Hornbill

THE APPEARANCE of this great hornbill (Buceros bicornis), measuring about fifty-two inches long, with black-and-white plumage and yellow casque and bill, is striking enough to have attracted the attention of Jahangir. Perhaps, on the other hand, it was the sound of the bird that was at first riveting, as in flight the wind whistling through its feathers makes a droning noise that can be heard a mile away. When congregating in groups in the larger trees of the forest, it also emits a noisy barrage of bizarre sounds. If Jahangir watched the hornbill feeding, he must have been amused at the way it tossed fruit or other food into the air with the tip of its bill, catching it in the throat and swallowing it.[1]

While the bird is exquisitely painted, its position at the edge of the rock is somewhat awkward and its feet less suited to this perch than to the large branches of the trees of its forest habitat. Perhaps Mansur (if the ascription is correct) had never seen a hornbill in the wild, since its habitat is confined to the area from the Western Ghats to Cape Comarin and the lower Himalayan ranges up to five thousand feet from Kumaon eastward. On the other hand, habitat in natural history painting is a relatively recent concept, and background in seventeenth-century Mughal portraits generally provided a simply neutral if harmonious setting.

Another version of this painting of the hornbill exists, apparently not quite as fine; but whether or not it is a nineteenth-century copy the published account does not say.[2]

Marie L. Swietochowski in [Welch et al. 1987]

THE RICHLY detailed blacks, whites, and yellows of Mansur's stately hombill are as rewarding to close inspection as those of a living bird. As in his other natural history studies, Mansur concentrates upon the hombill directly and objectively. We sense wear on the light but hard beak and feel the coolness of the damp, leathery feet. As usual, Mansur reserved calligraphic flourishes and playfully rhythmic, ornamental runs of the brush for the stones and grasses of the setting. The miniature was enlarged at both sides, probably by Mansur; the original part has, however, darkened in contrast to his carefully matched additions.

Stuart Cary Welch in [Welch et al. 1987]

THE PAINTING of the hornbill is as splendid as that of the forktail (MMA fol. 15v; pl. 40 in this volume) and would have faced it in the album to which they originally belonged. It is a verso page with the margin number 43, and thus both are Group A leaves. The border scheme is compatible with the other, although not quite as fine, with a floral and leaf scroll in colors on a buff ground.

Marie L. Swietochowski in [Welch et al. 1987]

1. Whistler, Hugh, and Kinnear, Norman B. Popular Handbook of Indian Birds. Rev. and enl. 4th ed. London, 1949, pp. 304–305, for a description of the appearance, habits, and distribution of the great hornbill.

2. Basil Gray, "Painting," p. 159, no. 718, in: The Art of India and Pakistan: A Commemorative Catalogue of the Exhibition Held at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1947–48. Ed. Leigh Ashton. London, 1950. The author says that the one illustrated is somewhat superior to the one he is discussing, which at that time belonged to Geoffrey C. N. Sturt, Painswick, Gloucestershire, but he does not illustrate it. recto–Calligraphy

Whosoever sees the surat-i fatiha of your face,
Recites, "Say, God is one!" and blows with sincerity.
Khidr said, "God made a fine plant sprout," and passed by
The moment he saw the greenery around your lip.
"May God increase your beauty!"–how can one say that?
For there is no possibility of increase in your beauty that
makes joy increase!

The author says metaphorically that the face of his beloved is as divine as the surat-i fatiha (the first chapter of the Koran) and as beautiful (the first pages of the holy book were usually richly illuminated). Looking at the beloved's face, the lover exclaims, "Say, God is one ... ," which is the beginning of Sura 112, called surat al-ikhlas, the "sura of sincerity," or complete devotion (hence the pun on "sincerity" at the end of the hemistich). To recite this Koranic chapter and then to blow on one's hands and pass them over one's own or someone else's body is still done to avert the evil eye. With such breathtaking beauty one has to fear that the beloved may be hurt by the evil eye or by envious people. Khidr, the mysterious prophet-saint who had drunk from the Water of Life, is immortal: in poetic parlance he is often connected with the beloved's lip which grants the lover immortality by a single kiss (= water of life). The "greenery" is the newly sprouting down around the mouth and on the cheeks of the young beloved; it is compared in a Koranic expression (Sura 3/37) to a delicate plant, and the word "green" leads back to Khidr, whose name is derived from the Arabic root for "green."

This clever verse was apparently very much liked in Timurid days, and it appears on another fine calligraphed page by Sultan-Muhammad Nur (MMA 1982.120.4). Furthermore, the same poem, written by Mir-'Ali, is also found in V&A 20–1925 on the reverse of a portrait of 'Abdullah Uzbek. This version contains an additional line:

Those who are slain by grief for you are both poor and rich.
Those who are thirsty for your lip are both miserable and

The additional line in the V&A poem takes its wording from a Prophetic tradition about predestination, i.e., "The miserable is miserable in his mother's womb, the lucky one is lucky in his mother's womb." Human destiny is preordained before birth. The lover–thus the poet–experiences both hell and heaven in longing for the beloved's lip.

The surrounding prose text seems to belong to a treatise on rhetoric.

Annemarie Schimmel in [Welch et al. 1987]

THE CALLIGRAPHY page has, as does MMA fol. 15v (pl. 39 in this volume), side panels of cutout poetry in the innermost border and a gold-on-pink flower-head, leaf, and palmette scroll on the inner border. The outer border has colored plants on a buff ground. These are not identifiable.

Marie L. Swietochowski in [Welch et al. 1987]
Signature: recto:
In Persian, in lower left of central panel: The slave Mir 'Ali.

Inscription: verso:
Persian Inscription, in lower part of second border (in Jahangir's hand): "Work of Ustad Mansur"

Marking: verso:
Margin number '43' is inscribed in the gilt margin.
Jack S. Rofe, Scotland (in 1929; sale, Sotheby's London,December 12, 1929, no. 145, to Kevorkian); [ Hagop Kevorkian, New York, from 1929]; [ Kevorkian Foundation, New York, until 1955; gift and sale to MMA]
New York. Asia Society. "The Art of Mughal India, Painting and Precious Objects," January 1, 1964–March 31, 1964, no. 37.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Indian Art in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 18, 1973–April 1, 1973, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Emperor's Album: Images of Mughal India," October 21, 1987–February 14, 1988, nos. 41 and 42.

Zurich. Museum Rietberg. "Wonder of the Age: Master painters of India, 1100–1900," April 30, 2011–August 21, 2011, no. 36.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100–1900," September 26, 2011–January 8, 2012.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100–1900," September 26, 2011–January 8, 2012.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Wonder of the Age: Master painters of India, 1100–1900," September 28, 2011–January 8, 2012, no. 36.

Sotheby's: Catalogue of Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures. London: Sotheby's, New York, 1929. no. 145.

Welch, Stuart Cary. The Art of Mughal India : Painting and Precious Objects. An Asia House Gallery publication. New York: Asia Society, 1963. no. 37, p. 168, ill. pl. 37 (b/w).

"Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York." In The Arts of Islam. Berlin, 1981. no. 126, pp. 296–97, ill. p. 297 (color).

Welch, Stuart Cary, Annemarie Schimmel, Marie Lukens Swietochowski, and Wheeler M. Thackston. The Emperors' Album: Images of Mughal India. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. no. nos. 41, 42, pp. 165, 167–68, ill., verso pl. 41 (color); recto pl. 42 (b/w).

Okada, Amina. Imperial Mughal Painters: Indian Miniatures from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Paris: Flammarion, 1992. pp. 216–17, ill. fig. 254 (color), verso.

Beach, Milo C., Eberhard Fischer, and B.N. Goswamy. Masters of Indian Painting. Vol. Vols. I, II. Zurich, Switzerland: Artibus Asiae Publishers, 2011. vol. I, pp. 249, 254, ill. fig. 13 (color).