Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Art of the Mughals before 1600

The dynasty founded by Babur, the Mughal dynasty, ruled over the greatest Islamic state of the Indian subcontinent. As a youth, Babur, a prince of the house of Timur, was unable to maintain his sovereignty over the small Central Asian state bequeathed to him by his father. Instead, he turned his attention to the southeast, where he occupied Kabul in 1504, and almost immediately thereafter embarked on his conquest of India. By 1527, Babur had defeated both the forces of the Lodi sultan and those of the Hindu confederacy. However, at the time of his death, in 1530, he had not yet transformed his territorial acquisitions into an empire. This task was left to Humayun, Babur’s son and successor, who unfortunately lacked the military genius of his father and soon forfeited the Mughal foothold in India. Only through Persian military intervention did he manage to regain the capital cities of Agra and Delhi in 1555. Yet it is Humayun’s son Akbar who can be credited with the real foundation of the Mughal empire.

During his reign, which lasted nearly fifty years (1556–1605), Akbar established dominion over northern and central India, as far east as Bengal. He secured the northwestern frontier, gateway to India for so many previous invasions, through his control of Kabul. Akbar’s most important territorial gain was the sultanate of Gujarat, in the west, which provided the Mughal empire with enormous wealth from its commercial centers, as well as access to the Arabian Sea and hence opportunity for lucrative trade with both the Europeans and the Ottoman empire. Unlike his grandfather, Akbar succeeded in consolidating the empire and establishing a strong administrative system. He was deeply interested in spiritual and religious issues, and in 1582 formulated a new code of religious behavior. Weekly discussions at court included not only representatives of various Muslim religious communities but also non-Muslim theologians including Hindus, Jains, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians.

Akbar was also the first great Mughal patron of the arts. Of his various building projects, the most ambitious was the new capital city of Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra. Built mostly between 1571 and 1585, when Akbar adopted Lahore as his principal residence, the palace buildings at Fatehpur Sikri reflect a synthesis of Timurid traditions of Iran and Central Asia with indigenous traditions of Hindu and Muslim India.

Although he is said to have been illiterate, Akbar assembled a royal atelier, first at Fatehpur Sikri, then at Lahore, from which he commissioned numerous illustrated manuscripts that incorporate Persian, Indian, and even European elements. In fact, the artists who worked for Akbar, the first great Mughal patron of the arts of the book, included Persians as well as Indian Muslims and Hindus. This collaborative process helped to foster the development of a specifically Mughal style, which was initiated under Akbar and is demonstrated by pages from diverse late-sixteenth-century manuscripts. This style of painting was further developed and refined during the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan during the seventeenth century.