Learn/ Educators/ Curriculum Resources/ Art of the Islamic World/ Unit Five: Courtly Splendor in the Islamic World/ Chapter Four: The Mughal Court and the Art of Observation/ Featured Works of Art: Images 30–32/ Image 31

Image 31

Dagger with hilt in the form of a blue bull (nilgai )
About 1640
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Alice Heeramaneck, in memory of Nasli Heeramaneck, 1985 (1985.58a)

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Mughal empire, royal hunt, dagger, Emperor Shah Jahan, natural world, album, animals, nephrite (jade), steel

Mughal emperors were keen observers of animals and the blue bull (nilgai)—a large antelope native to India—was among their favorites. The intimate familiarity with the features of the blue bull, as well as the fine quality of the carving, suggest that this dagger was made in the royal workshop by someone with access to the imperial zoo, which would have housed both native and foreign animals.

Finely carved daggers such as this were seldom used as weapons, but rather were part of the royal ceremonial costume of the Mughal court. Surviving daggers featuring animal heads are relatively rare, and were probably worn by those of the highest status at the Mughal court.

The head of the blue bull, which forms the handle of this dagger, features thin hollow ears, delicately carved facial features, and grooves along the neckline where the owner could rest his fingers. At the base of the hilt, a lotuslike flower rests in a leaf scroll, which bulges over the edge—a feature that prevents the hand from slipping from the smooth handle onto the sharp blade. The blue tone of the jade (nephrite) resembles the animal's coat, which was admired for its bluish gray hue.

The Mughal emperors' interest in animals might be considered paradoxical by today's standards. They admired animals for their beauty, enjoyed observing them in the wild and in the imperial zoo, but also were avid hunters and even held animal fights at the court where courtiers could place bets on their favorites. Court painters were often present during these fights and sketched the animals from life (fig. 34).

While the Mughals' Islamic faith informed their disapproval of large-scale figurative sculpture, India had a rich indigenous sculptural tradition, which influenced Mughal art. This figural tradition was transformed by the Mughals into objects such as this one—small in scale and finely executed. The genre of small-scale animal sculptures and depictions flourished in Mughal India, and the handle of this dagger, with its realistically carved head of a blue bull, is a prime example of this trend.

Fig. 34. Blue Bull (Nilgai  ): Folio from the Shah Jahan Album (verso), about 1620; artist: Mansur (active 1589–1629); India; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; 15 5/16 x 10 1/16 in. (38.9 x 25.6 cm); The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Rogers Fund and The Kevorkian Foundation Gift, 1955 (

According to Emperor Jahangir's memoirs, the blue bull (nilgai ) was commonly encountered on royal hunts. This illustration is by the court artist Mansur, who often accompanied the ruler on his hunts. He had a special talent for observing and depicting nature, and shows how the bull would have appeared in the wild. Blue bulls still live in the grasslands of present-day India, Pakistan, and Nepal.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History