Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – British Library

The British Library always puts on good exhibitions and the new one, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire is no exception. I visited on Saturday and found it an enlightening experience.

I know very little about India; in fact most of my literary, historical and cultural interests are very Western-based so I hoped this exhibition would give me the chance to broaden my horizons. The Mughals ruled India for over three hundred years, from 1526 when Henry VIII was on the throne in England until 1858, the time of the early Victorian era. I am roughly familiar with the progress of British, and to a lesser extent European, history during this period, but my knowledge of Asian history of this (or any) period is slim.

I found it interesting that the Mughals were an Islamic dynasty, but those over whom they ruled were mostly Hindus. By and large, according to the exhibition, rulers exercised religious tolerance. This helped to keep the peace throughout the empire and fostered debates on different aspects of religion. Geographically, the empire at its height spanned a large and diverse area, including most of what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The first Mughal emperor was Babur (1483-1530), who came from Samarquand (modern Uzbekistan) to conquer Kabul, Lahore and Delhi. Descended from Genghis Khan and Timur, the emperors adopted Persian as their cultural and administrative language.

There were fifteen major emperors over the years: traditionally the early six emperors are known as the ‘Great’ Mughals, famed for their expansion of the empire and their commissioning of great buildings such as the Taj Mahal and the Delhi Red Fort. I found it difficult to get my head around all the different emperors, but a central part of the exhibition displays pictures and artefacts relating to each emperor in chronological order. I found this very handy to help me work out who was who and give me some insight into the achievements and character of each emperor.

The exhibition was divided into sections, looking at life in Mughal India, painting, religion, literature, science and medicine. Images and artefacts were displayed clearly, and there were numerous books and other examples of writing, as you might expect from an exhibition at the British Library. I thought the art was incredibly beautiful, very different to the Western style of painting, colourful and vivid. I found it particularly interesting to see paintings of British and other European visitors in this style, which were in great contrast to the paintings you see in places like the National Gallery. One of the most unusual pictures was of one of the emperors engaged in some bedroom fun with a mistress: I found it very bizarre that an emperor would agree to being painted in such a compromising position!

Of course I couldn’t read works in Persian or other languages of the empire, but I found the descriptive cards next to them to be good sources of information. Many rulers were patrons of literature and several wrote poetry or kept diaries themselves. I found the works on science extremely fascinating: great advances were made through the study of the sciences, in medicine for example. Geography and astronomy were especially important and the Mughals were also influenced by astrology.

The empire began to reduce in size over time and towards its end covered only the area of the Delhi Red Fort. The dynasty came to an end in 1858 after the failed Uprising against the British East India Company.

I really enjoyed this exhibition. It was very different to what I am used to but I found it fascinating, and once again I feel I learned something.