Razmnama: When The Mughals Painted The Mahabharata

A battle scene from the Razmnama, (1616)
Emperor Akbar had many Hindu texts translated into Persian. His Mahabharata is among the most beautifully illustrated.

An oft-unacknowledged aspect of Mughal rule in India was its royal patronage of Hindu artwork. In the 16th century, under Emperor Akbar, perhaps the finest copy of the ancient epic ‘Mahabharata’ was the Persian one circulating in Mughal courts.

The Razmnama or ‘Book of War’ was completed between 1582-84. It emerged from Akbar’s Maktab Khana (translation bureau) from Fatehpur Sikri, where a team of translators worked hard on converting Indian texts to Persian. There was a political reason for this – Akbar wanted Persian to emerge as the lingua franca of his empire, though his court was multi-lingual. In fact, many Hindus were studying Persian in madrasas in order to raise their chances at a government job.

But there was also the matter of Akbar’s personal views on the universality of religion. As court historian, Mulla Daud recorded Akbar’s command that:

..the rational contents of different religions and faiths, should be translated in the language of each, and that the rose garden of the traditional aspects of each religion, should, as far as possible, be cleared of the thorns of bigotry.

Karna, one of the Kauravas, slays the Pandavas’ nephew Ghatotkacha with a weapon given to him by Indra, the king of the gods, from a manuscript of the Razmnama (1616-1617)

Akbar’s fascination with other religions led him to start the Ibadat Khana, a meeting ground and forum for people of all faiths – Muslim (Sunni, Shia, Sufi), Hindu, Sikh, Catholic, Jesuit and so on. His fascination with the ‘other’ led him to explore the Mahabharata.

Persian renditions of Indian texts was one way of ingratiating the language with the masses. But initial translation attempts were frayed – three translators in a row failed to translate the Atharva Veda from Sanskrit to Persian. By the time they were commissioned to work on the Mahabharata, it would have been their most imposing task – over 100,000 verses long. According to a contemporary author, Badāʼūnī, Akbar himself personally narrated the story to the translators – a notable feat, since it’s known that Akbar couldn’t read.

The work was long and filled with fact-checking, and towards its completion, one of the translators was banished on account of some crime. There are many who worked on this, as a preface explained (translated by Audrey Truschke):

Naqīb Khān, son of ʻAbd al-Laṭīf Ḥusaynī, translated [this work] from Sanskrit into Persian in one and a half years. Several of the learned Brahmans, such as Deva Miśra, Śatāvadhāna, Madhusūdana Miśra, Caturbhuja and Shaykh Bhāvan…read this book and explained it in hindī to me, a poor wretched man, who wrote it in Persian.

Prince Chandrahasa and a Goddess, Folio from a Razmnama (1610-1620)

The result was an abridged Mahabharata – though one that hasn’t lost out on visual flair.

Among the artists was a miniature painter artist named Basawan, notable for his realistic (and sometimes hilarious) portraits. The procedure for such epic projects, in those days, was a master artist to draw the composition and for assistants to colour them – and so there is no way to ascertain an individual artist within the Razmnama, besides their style. Basawan worked closely with another artist named Daswant, who is said to have been responsible for as many as 31 of the Razmnama’s roughly 125 full-page illustrations. Abul Fazal described him as the son of a palanquin-bearer – i.e, from the Kahar caste.

Bhima kills Kichaka with his bare hands, folio attributed to Daswant and Mukund (Image: Jaipur Razmnama/Creative Commons)

Daswant was known for his nightmarish and irrational works. He committed suicide in 1584, prior to completion of the Razmnama. All in all, several artists worked on the Razmnama and left their indelible mark on Mughal art.

In the end, Akbar left it to his vizier Abu’l-Faz ibn Mubarak to write the preface to the Razmnama – explaining why the emperor had commissioned the work. For this was the true master-stroke of the Razmnama – cementing Akbar’s position as a wise, just and spiritual leader. As Abu writes:

…for his own understanding, he decided to explore the reason for the hostility that divided the Muslims, Jews and Hindus and in doing so realized that their denial of one another was all too obvious…Therefore, in realizing this, he decided to translate the authentic books of the different groups into another language, so that both groups could have the pleasure of benefiting from the perfect knowledge; thus forgetting their enmity and hostility and seeking the divine truth. In this way, they could learn about their flaws and shortcomings and therefore endeavor to correct their manners in the best way possible.

The Gods Enjoy the Spectacle of Arjuna and Tāmradhvaja Fighting Below (Image: British Library/ Public Domain)

Copies of the Razmnama were sent to every Amir and well circulated – to varying degrees of quality.

The original Razmnama is sealed away in the City Palace Museum in Udaipur, inaccessible to most. But several hundred copies exist across South Asia, thanks to a healthy culture of reproducing artwork that existed.

Akbar’s Mahabharata inspired one of his rivals – the Mewars of Sisodiya. Jagat Singh encountered Akbar’s work when he was very young, and resolved to create a work as beautiful. The result was the Mewar Ramayana – the world’s largest illustrated Ramayana.

The Mughal court under Akbar was a cosmopolitan and secular place. The tradition of translating Hindu texts did not end with Akbar however – even Aurangzeb continued the tradition. With the Ibadat Khana, the Din-i-Illahi (a separate religion aiming to blend the best aspects of all religions) and the Razmnama, Akbar’s legacy was to wrap together the great religions of the world. Politically, this may be a tall offering. But artistically, it was done and with aplomb.

The Hindu art of the Mughal courts could teach us a lot about syncretic cultures today. The art and artists of the Razmnama deserve greater appreciation for their contribution to the idea of India.


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