The weaponry produced at the Mughal court reflects the same refinement as other portable arts. Daggers such as this one were sometimes awarded to officers who had distinguished themselves in military victory and were worn at court as dress accessories indicating royal favor. Animal-headed hilts were especially favored, and the realism of their rendering conveys the keen appreciation for nature by Mughal artists. On this dagger, the hilt portrays a nilgai, or blue bull, one of the most beautiful animals found in India, and terminates at the base with a leafy scroll and lotus flower. Carved from a bluish-green nephrite that approximates the color of the animal, this hilt not only demonstrates the artist's thorough mastery of hard-stone carving, but also displays a level of accuracy and sensitivity that suggest close observation of a model, perhaps one of the captive animals kept in the imperial zoo.
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Title:Dagger with Hilt in the Form of a Blue Bull (Nilgai)
Geography:Made in India
Medium:Hilt: Nephrite Blade: Watered steel
Dimensions:H. 15 in. (38.1 cm)
Credit Line:Gift of Alice Heeramaneck, in memory of Nasli Heeramaneck, 1985
Accession Number:1985.58a, b
Dagger with Jade Hilt in the Form of a Nilgai
Lively animal sculpture has been a staple of Indian art, not least under the Mughals, who loved, respected, and understood animals, often in the paradoxical way of hunters. Inasmuch as their religious tradition did not encourage large-scale figurative sculpture, their sculptural objects took on special importance. If small it must be, let it be wondrously small! was the credo of connoisseurs who usually conceived things either as big or little, not in between—vast forts and palaces, little pictures, and objects preciously small as jewels.
Those made to be carried brought particular pleasure. A fine dagger at the belt, accessible to eye and hand, was aesthetically satisfying as well as necessary. Like jewels, daggers indicated a Mughal's position at court. Although very fine weapons were available in the bazaars, the best ones came from the imperial workshops, and wearing one signaled imperial approval. Thus, a courtier knew another's standing at a glance. A nobleman close to the emperor might have worn a jewel-sized portrait of Shah Jahan, while a member of Dara-Shikoh's faction proclaimed his loyalty with that prince's likeness on his turban.
A close look at the many hundreds of elegant personages thronging the miniatures of the Padshah-nama reveals that by far the most common form of dagger worn was the katar (no. 178 in this volume), with the curved khanjar (no. 98 in this volume) next in popularity, followed by the straight-bladed kard (no. 131 in this volume). Only a small number of hilts with animal finials are known, and these include examples with a horse or nilgai, worn by Dara-Shikoh and Shah Shuja'. Although animal-hilted daggers—ordinarily with horses—proliferated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they were exceedingly rare during the reign of Shah Jahan. A superbly sculptured hilt such as this one portraying a nilgai, or blue bull, with its acutely sensitive observation of the animal and its marvelous craftsmanship, could only have been made in the imperial ateliers. 
1. In the Windsor Castle Padshah-nama, both Dara-Shikoh and Shah Shuja' wear daggers with nilgai hilts in a miniature that shows Shah Jahan receiving an embassy of Europeans (folio 115v); and in a darbar scene by Balchand, Dara-Shikoh is portrayed wearing a horse-hilted dagger (folio 72v). Few other animal hilts can be found in the manuscript, which is our most reliable source of information.
2. Another nilgai hilt, carved in lighter, blue-green jade, is in the collection of Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi. See Morley, Grace. "On Applied Arts of India in Bharat Kala Bavan." In Chhavi: Golden Jubilee Volume. Banaras, 1971, p. 117, pl. 12.
Alice N. Heeramaneck, New York (until 1985; gifted to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "INDIA !," September 14–September 14, 1985, no. 168.
Los Angeles. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Romance of the Taj Mahal," December 17, 1989–March 11, 1990, no. 174.
Toledo, OH. Toledo Museum of Art. "Romance of the Taj Mahal," April 28, 1990–June 24, 1990, no. 174.
Richmond. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "Romance of the Taj Mahal," August 23, 1990–November 25, 1990, no. 174.
Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 42 (1984–1985). pp. 8–9, ill. (color).
Welch, Stuart Cary. India: Art and Culture 1300–1900. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985. no. 168, pp. 257–59, ill. (color).
Welch, Stuart Cary. The Islamic World. vol. 11. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987. pp. 150–51, ill. fig. 116 (color).
Pal, Pratapaditya. Romance of the Taj Mahal. London; Los Angeles: Thames and Hudson, 1989–1991. no. 174, pp. 155, 161, ill. (color).
Ekhtiar, Maryam, and Claire Moore, ed. "A Resource for Educators." In Art of the Islamic World. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. pp. 158–59, ill. pl. 31 (color).
Alexander, David G., and Stuart W. Pyhrr. "in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." In Islamic Arms and Armor. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. no. 83, pp. 212–13, ill. (color).
INDIA!, an exhibition of the art of India from the fourteenth through the nineteenth century, opened on this day in 1985 as part of a nationwide Festival of India jointly organized by the Government of India and the Indo-U.S. Sub-commission on Education and Culture.
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