Science & Technology

'Jahangir's scientific contributions have been ignored by mainstream academia'

Ebba Koch is an art and architectural historian. Her area of specialisation is the period of Mughal rule in the Indian Subcontinent (1526-1857). She teaches art history at the Institute of Art History, University of Vienna in Austria. Professor Koch was in India recently and spoke to Down To Earth about the fourth of the Great Mughals, the Padshah Jahangir, who was an astute observer of nature and science. Excerpts…

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 19 February 2016

Professor Ebba Koch (Credit: Vikas Choudhary)

In your paper Jahangir as Francis Bacon’s Ideal of the King as an Observer and Investigator of Nature (1998), you write that “Jahangir has indeed been something of a Cinderella of text-based Mughal historical studies because of the focus of Mughal historians has been on Akbar’s and Aurangzeb’s reign.” This was way back in 1998. Is the situation different now?

Yes, the situation has changed somewhat because now, we do have historians who are getting interested in Jahangir. We have Corinne Lefevre, who is a student of Sanjay Subrahmanyam and she is doing her dissertation and writing a book on Jahangir. Also, Lisa Balabanlilar has recently come out with a book on Jahangir in London. So Jahangir is getting more attention from mainstream historians. But art historians were always interested in him. And scientists also, since he made important contributions to ornithology and biology. He is still quoted by Salim Ali in his book on Indian birds.

Jahangir was self-taught as were Akbar and Babur before him. But what drew him to biology, botany, geology, ornithology and zoology? Is there something in his childhood and early years that triggered his interest in these disciplines?

Portrait of Jahangir, attributed to Hashim, ca. 1620, courtesy of the British Museum, London (Source: Ebba Koch)

It is a very unique phenomenon and in a way, we can describe it as a dynastic interest of the Mughals. It starts with Babur. He gives us very vivid descriptions of the flora and fauna of Hindustan in the Baburnameh, his own autobiography, which is a unique text of the 16th century-world. The way he talks about his own experiences as a warlord—he wanted to be a successor to Timur and raise a new empire and finally, he directed his interest to Hindustan—he describes all this. In a way, Jahangir picks up from Babur. He tells us, “My ancestor Babur describes the phenomena (which I am describing) but I am also directing my painters to make illustrations so that these phenomena would not only be recorded in text but also visually, in images. And he did so. We have wonderful bird studies by Ustad Mansur, his court painter, who was a specialist in nature studies.

You have documented how European art, coming to the Mughal court via Goa, inspired Jahangir and his court painters, Ustad Mansur and Abul Hasan. Was there a similar effect vice-versa? Or was it a one-way street?

We have an interesting example in Vienna because one of the audience rooms of Empress Maria Theresa who ruled during the 18th century, was decorated with miniatures from the Mughal Empire. These miniatures adopted the Indian originals to the Austrian court’s tastes. This is one example with which I am very familiar because I am from Austria and have studied these.

Talk to me about Ustad Mansur and Abul Hasan. Do we have any personal details about them? How and when did they end up at Jahangir’s court as his painters?

That is the problem we have with most Indian artists. We know very little about their lives and circumstances. We have occasional remarks in history books but we know very little about Abul Hasan and Ustad Mansur. From Abul Hasan, there is a drawing which he did after an engraving of the German engraver Albrecht Durer. On the drawing, which is in Oxford, it is written, “a practicing piece”. He did this when he was young. Apparently, he was employed at the court at a very young age. We have to piece our information together like this in the absence of primary sources. 

Why was Jahangir so interested in breeding experiments, like the one with a pair of Sarus Cranes and the one where he crossed two male Markhor with seven female Barbary goats?

Jahangir did not believe in knowledge that was transmitted through to one through hearsay or literary sources. He rather believed in acquiring knowledge through experiments and practical application. This was also what Sir Francis Bacon in England suggested, should be done. It is extremely fascinating to know about what Jahangir did here in India but hard to explain. But here again, we know that it is a family tradition, a dynastic interest because Akbar also had experiments undertaken. In the late 1570s, Akbar started an experiment and had children brought up in a secluded house with nurses who were not allowed to talk to them, to find out whether they would speak on their own and in what language. The experiment failed tragically because the children remained dumb and some even died tragically.  

Has history and science been able to discern as to whether the model for Ustad Mansur’s famous dodo was a live or a dead specimen?

Jahangir’s representation was the most accurate till date. It seems to have been drawn from a living model.

Dodo, attributed to Ustad Mansur at the Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg, Russian Federation (Source: Ebba Koch)

“Jahangir”, you write, “recorded, depicted, measured, enumerated and tested what he considered as noteworthy and outstanding.” Was Jahangir then, a true scientist or something else?

Obviously, he was something of an amateur. But sometimes, we get better scientific research from amateurs. Take for instance, photography. The best photographs that you have of Agra and the Taj Mahal are not from a professional photographer, but a certain Dr. John Murray who was employed by the British East India Company. Jahangir was an amateur as he did not have training as a scientist. But other Mughal emperors were really talented personalities. So, in this way, he had a natural talent for these observations. Also, we do not know about the people around him. Though it is possible that he had advisors but he does not mention them. Only once in the Tuzk-e-Jahangiri, he speaks about “men of superior knowledge” who advised him during the construction of his father’s tomb in Agra. So some people seem to have been around and it may also have been for science. But we do not get the notion. But he had an agent sitting in Goa, named Muqarrab Khan, who was tasked with sending exotic birds and animals to Agra. He sent a North American turkey and monkey once and Ustad Mansur drew the turkey, the painting of which survives till today.

A turkey drawn by Ustad Mansur, circa 1612, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (Source: Ebba Koch)

Why do you consider Hapsburg monarch Rudolf II as Jahangir’s European alter-ego? Why not James I of England or any other European sovereign for that matter?

Because James did not have anything to show in this regard. Whereas Rudolf was famous for his court at Prague where all scientists came, most notably Kepler. He had a great interest in and was a patron of science. And it was also a matter of personal interest for him.

You have compared Jahangir to the Biblical Solomon via Francis Bacon’s writings—an ideal king who was a keen observer and investigator of nature. Do you think this aspect of his personality stands in lesser light than the political mistakes that he committed as a ruler—most importantly the torture and execution of the Fifth Sikh Guru, Arjun?

Jahangir did not have a good image among historians. He has been judged as not being interested in government, only in wine and women. Not only is he infamous for his treatment of Guru Arjun, but there is also the incident of him having a servant whipped and sent to China because he broke a cup of his. But definitely, his contribution to natural science and also to ideas of rulership and upholding the principle of “Sulh-e-Kul” (Universal acceptance of all) from the time of Akbar are exemplary. We have a beautiful passage written by Jahangir at the beginning of his reign where he speaks about the reign of his father as being a kingdom where Shias and Sunnis could pray in one mosque and Jews and Christians could pray in one church. He adds that the Mughal kingdom is not like Shia Safavid Persia or Sunni Ottoman Turkey. So we must also look at this side of Jahangir—his acceptance of all religions and his great interest in India and Hinduism. He had himself depicted in a yogic position, clad in a dhoti. He had elephant statues displayed on a road in Kashmir, near a pass in the Pir Panjal. He was fascinated by a Hindu ascetic called Jadrup. This is a side of him that we do not usually come across. Generally, he has been viewed in a negative way. But more recent research, a revisionist approach has tried to present the more positive contributions of Jahangir to Mughal India. 

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