The Mughal Empire in northern India was founded by Bābur in 1526. He was of Turko-Mongol lineage, and like his forbear Tīmūr (Tamerlane) he was devoted to the arts of the book and keenly appreciated Persian literature. The court language was Persian, and under the patronage of Mughal rulers a sophisticated and cosmopolitan Indo-Persian culture emerged. Persian poets and painters were attracted to India, where rewards for their services were often greater than in their homeland.
Interest in both books and spirituality had increased during the reign of Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), with patrons adding to their collections of romances and histories other works with mystical Sufi themes and inner meanings.
Persian themes of love and devotion were taken up enthusiastically, with popular romances such as those of Yūsuf and Zulaykhā, Laylá and Majnūn and other Sufi allegories copied in numerous manuscripts. By the 18th and 19th centuries, some of these stock Persian themes had been adopted by provincial centres and extended as far as the traditional Hindu courts, outside the Mughal realm.
Mughal India, copied 1640, illustrations late 17th century. A story from Saʿdī's moralistic work, the Gulistān, tells of a king caught in need of shelter while on a hunting trip. A peasant offers refreshments and the royal visitor passes the night in his humble dwelling, despite the misgivings of his courtiers. The king rewards his host with gifts. The lively margins are filled with scenes of animals in the wild, including elephants, lions, mountain goats, deer, and leopards. (MS. Pers. d. 43, fols. 80b-81a)
Leaf from an album, Mughal India, c. 1580. This leaf from an unattributed manuscript shows a green-robed prince in a walled garden, standing on the marble rim of a pool of swirling water. He is surrounded by attendants. The garden layout follows the Persian fashion of a cooling water channel flowing symmetrically through the cultivated space, a pool or fountain at its centre. Realistically drawn trees possibly reflect the eight gardens of paradise described in mystical texts. (MS. Ouseley Add. 170, fol. 1b)
Leaf from a disbound manuscript of Jāmī's Bahāristān or Garden of Spring, 1595. This Imperial Mughal copy of a 15th-century Persian classic was prepared for Emperor Akbar at Lahore and represents the high point of Mughal luxury manuscript production of its era. The Bahāristān is divided into eight chapters, one devoted to love. In it, a young man hears a girl singing and falls in love with her. Despite the mutuality of their ardour, he renounces his love in favour of chastity. (MS. Elliott 254, fol. 35b)
Leaf from a disbound manuscript of Jāmī's Bahāristān or Garden of Spring, 1595. This is a leaf from the Bahāristān manuscript prepared for Emperor Akbar at Lahore. The work was presented to the Bodleian Library in 1859 by the Bengal public servant J.B. Elliott, along with other significant manuscripts he acquired in India. This leaf, painted by the artist Laʿl, follows a vogue for illustrations of royalty meeting or sitting with Sufi mystics. (MS. Elliott 254, fol. 17b)
Mughal India, Illustrations c. 1590. This double page from a copy of Niẓāmī's lyric romance Laylā and Majnūn depicts two themes prevalent in Mughal manuscripts. On the right, Majnūn presides over his court of animals in a dramatic landscape. On the facing page, another painting illustrates the story of a young man who falls out of favour with a king he has served well. He is thrown to the dogs, but the dogs leave him unharmed because the lad had been feeding them. This story highlights the faithfulness of dogs and the unfaithfulness of kings. (MS. Pers. d. 102, p. 65)