Akbar’s Hamzanama

Published: July 31, 2009 - 12:44 Updated: July 2, 2015 - 12:59

It has the long title of 'Global: Lab. Art as a Message. Asia and Europe -- 1500-1700'. However, the thematic connotation of this delightful exhibition is even more enduring. This experimental global laboratory is a treasure house of thrilling records of what happens when opposing cultures collide and cooperate with each other.

In its possession are portions of the Hamzanama, a Mughal manuscript from the 16th century. The Hamzanama was born at a time when the great cultures of Europe and Asia increasingly came into contact. For the first time, the 60 miniatures preserved at Vienna's Museum of Applied Art can be seen here as a cohesive collection together with text pages till September 27.

At the heart of the idea is that even epochs far from our own in terms of history are closely related to our times. Like our times, the times before were filled with contradictions, and also, with inventions and discoveries. From a historical perspective, say the curators, the theme is just as current now as it was then.

The illustrated manuscript of the Hamzanama was created during the reign of Akbar and originally ran into 1,400 canvas folios. Most of them are lost but Vienna has preserved the largest bulk of 60 folios under one roof.

The Hamzanama is a glowing example of Akbar's fascination for unconventional truth, a quest that earned him the title of the 'Great Mughal'. He is remembered as an energetic, imaginative ruler of a vast empire that was culturally and religiously diverse. On his death his empire collected more than 65 times the revenue of Queen Elizabeth 1 of England.

Akbar was above his European contemporaries in more ways than one. To King Philip II of Spain who expelled, burnt and forced Jews, Muslims and non-Catholic Christians to convert, Akbar wrote: "...most men are fettered by bonds of tradition, and by imitating the ways followed by their fathers, ancestors, relatives... continue without investigating the arguments and reasons to follow the religion in which he was born and educated thus excluding himself from the possibility of ascertaining the truth which is the noblest aim of the human intellect. Therefore we associate at convenient seasons with learned men of all religions thus deriving profit from their exquisite discourses and exalted aspirations."

European ideas were free to be interpreted but thinkers around Akbar did so on their own terms. Christian images of saints and angels were used to illustrate messages based on Sufi, Islamic and Hindu symbols using Persian metaphors.

To a Jesuit priest who asked Akbar for written permission to build a church near the Mughal court, Akbar said that his decision to live beside the church was permission enough. After Akbar received a copy of the Bible from a Jesuit, he held it in his hands, publicly kissed it, and placed it on his head.

Once in a Catholic prayer room, Akbar removed his cap, knelt on the ground with great devotion before the picture of Christ and of the Virgin venerating thrice in the manner of a Christian, the other in that of Muslims and the third in the Hindu fashion.

Akbar's court was familiar with a wide range of literature, both oral and written. The imperial library was home to separate sections for Hindu, Persian, Greek and Arabic books. 

While Akbar was inspired by the Sufi principle of sulh-i-kull or universal tolerance, Europeans massacred each other in a way that people even today struggle to understand. It was routine here for Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist to battle each other across the continent.

Akbar invested enormous amount of resources to produce the Hamzanama based on a traditional Persian oral tale. The work radiates energy to this day because a diverse group of artists including Indian, Islamic, Persian, Turkic and European have contributed their creative best to it.

After Nadir Shah looted Delhi in 1739, he apparently took some volumes of the Hamzanama back to Iran. When the then Mughal emperor requested that the art be returned, the Persian warrior said, "Ask but the return of all your treasures, and they are yours -- but not the Hamzanama."

Later, the heads of characters depicted in most Hamzanama folios were defaced and many folios were rescued from street shops where they were being used as curtains. The theft, the scattering and division of the Hamzanama is criminal but its journey from India to Austria is as colourful as the adventures of Hamza, the protagonist.

That remnants of this Asian treasure born in the Middle Ages has been recognised, rescued and restored in Vienna is a gesture that Akbar would have surely recognised as an epical moment of revelation and gratitude, like his great, secular faith in pluralism.


This story is from print issue of HardNews