The seemingly sweaty armpits of Mughal princes and princesses depicted in Indian miniature paintings have long been a puzzle. Granted, India is hot, and Mughal artists assimilated some aspects of naturalism from European art, but surely this was taking truth to nature too far. In a comment that is almost an aside, in the middle of this masterly study of Mughal civilisation, Annemarie Schimmel offers a solution: the dark patches represent the oily perfumes that both men and women used. Reading the stains as scent rather than sweat changes at once the imagined aroma and replaces a sense of discomfort with one of luxury.
In this and many such insights, Schimmel drew on her vast knowledge of the material and literary culture of the Mughals, India's last and most dazzling Muslim dynasty. The author died in 2003 after a life devoted to the study of a broad range of Islamic literatures in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu. This work, first published in German in 2000, is her only full-length book on the Mughals, and this English translation (by Corinne Attwood) with new illustrations (selected by Burzine Waghmar) makes it available to a wider audience.
Of the three topics indicated by the subtitle, it is culture that provides the main focus. There is little narrative of historical events (already frequently explored by other writers), and the sections on painting and architecture are comparatively scanty; but the day-to-day life of the Mughal court is minutely explored and vividly portrayed. We learn how the durbar worked, how officers and diplomats were appointed and received, how the court travelled, how offenders were punished. The author selects judiciously from the abundant material available to describe Mughal clothing, jewellery and cuisine, and to chart the uses and abuses of alcohol, drugs and medicine. As one might expect, the chapter on languages and literature is an assured overview that gives even the monoglot reader a sense of the values of Mughal poetry and prose.
The overall picture that emerges is one of sumptuous opulence marred by bursts of casual violence. The life of Abdur Rahim, a minister who served under both Akbar and Jahangir, was in every way refined, but in the turbulent times towards the end of Jahangir's reign, he suffered the trauma of having "the head of his only son... served up to him like a melon".
Despite her scholarship, Schimmel's approach retains an old-world innocence. Many comments record her spontaneous responses. Some of them indeed might have been adjusted by further reflection or reference (as when she spots a railway bridge in the background of a 17th-century painting).
In recommending this book to students as a broad but concise introduction to Indo-Islamic culture, one will also have to advise them that, unlike the polymath, they will not get away with describing al-Biruni's writings on Hinduism as "accurate and objective", nor the paintings of the Hamzanama as "extremely realistic". Such terms are no longer in the academic lexicon, alas.
In a similar vein, despite a helpfully full bibliography, Schimmel selectively ignores the views of other modern writers. She makes no comment on the argument now gaining ground that the terms Hindu and Muslim describe categories that were not understood at the time, but are more recent constructions. In fact Schimmel's explorations of the literature of the period supply ample evidence against this politically well-intentioned but historically groundless thesis. But it is not her declared intention to refute it: the controversy itself she rises grandly above. Such disregard for her colleagues' obsessions make this less of a book of the moment, but also perhaps more durable, and certainly more enjoyable.
Schimmel is tempted to point out the many continuities between the Mughal era and present-day life in the sub-continent. A frequent visitor herself, she remarks how those familiar with the region will recognise aspects of ceremonial dress, customs of hospitality, or pastimes including polo and pigeon-fancying. All this is true, and it is a measure of the impact the Mughals made on India; but it also undermines the broader and more important impression created by the book as a whole that the Mughals fashioned a distinct and truly remarkable civilisation that now lies beyond our reach.
Giles Tillotson is a writer and lecturer on Indian architecture, who was formerly at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture
Author - Annemarie Schimmel
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 352
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 1 86189 185 7