Université d'Erfurt

Uros Zver

Gast-Doktorand am Max-Weber-Kolleg
von April bis Mai 2013


AB Government (Harvard, 2006), MA Global History exp. 06/2013 (Vienna), Thesis Research Grant (Vienna), C.V. Starr Scholar (Harvard), Efroymson Scholar (Harvard)


"European Visual Culture in Mughal Imperial Identity: The Tomb of Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605)"

In 1582, a rare letter from Mughal Emperor Akbar (r.1556-1605) was drafted and sent to Philip II of Spain (r.1554-1598), whose Asian dominions neighboured those of the Indian sovereign. Although the letter never reached its destination, its contents, expounding Akbar's rejection of tradition in favour of an enlightened pursuit of truth through reason and observation, resulting in a policy of religious non-discrimination called *sulh-i-kul *(universal peace), paint a stark contrast to the religious wars raging under his European counterpart. Elsewhere, European thought bears fascinating similarities to these descriptions of Mughal ideas, as for example in the renascent empiricism and secularism in the works of men like Francis Bacon (1561-1626) or Jean Bodin (1530-1596). When, in addition, we consider the Mughals' ambiguous relationship with the Jesuit missions at their court, often oscillating between sincere interest and rejection, and the early Emperors' concurrent and obsessive appropriation of Christian iconography into the ever-expanding vocabulary of imperial visual culture, the multiplicity of the Indo-European encounter is as obvious as it is perplexing, and makes the observation that the exchange has many guises almost superfluous.

In order to further illuminate the nature and extent of this cross-cultural encounter, and the ways in which it shaped the Mughal imperial project, the proposed research looks at a comparatively neglected Mughal source, namely their awe-inspiring architecture. These imperial building-projects function as lithic epresentations of the dynasty's evolving ideology of rulership, and harbour the mark of Europe in unlikely places.

Among the architectural masterpieces that stand as a testament to the legacy of the Mughal Empire, the tomb of Akbar, the dynasty's most celebrated ruler, endures as one of the most enigmatic. Its brazenly unconventional form, marked by five diminishing floors of arcaded terraces, giving the monument a palatial rather than sepulchral appearance; its unbridled stylistic and ornamental syncretism prefiguring European floral and faunal motifs that would soon become the Mughal norm; and, above all, the absence of the archetypal crowning dome, have bewildered witnesses and commentators for over four centuries.

Yet its most extraordinary feature lies hidden within the central domed chamber housing the Emperor's grave. European visitors report that adorning the walls of this central space, watching over the grave of what was perhaps the most illustrious Islamic ruler of the early-modern world, were painted Christian subjects including the Virgin Mary, the infant Jesus, a crucifix, as well as angels and a Jesuit identified as St. Ignatius de Loyola. These and other murals at the tomb were later whitewashed by Akbar's great-grandson Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707) on account of their idolatry, and thus have hitherto received limited attention. Although such appropriation of Christian iconography in the context of a Mughal imperial grave is unprecedented, and raises important questions regarding the impact of the Indo-European encounter on Mughal dynastic identity, it has done little to alleviate the confusion surrounding the building's intended meaning. Consequently, scholars have continued to regard the monument as either radically innovative or, more often, as an architectural failure marked by an incongruity of styles and an appearance of incompleteness.

The tomb, built by Abar's son Jahangir in the immediate aftermath of his father's reign, when the European presence at court grew with the arrival of the Dutch and English, thus beckons our attention not merely by virtue of the semantic puzzle posed by its unorthodox design, but also for its potential to illuminate our understanding of a particularly important period in the formation and evolution of Mughal political culture and visual practice, and its global connections.

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