The Mughal empire eventually covered much of the South Asian region, though its borders shifted regularly with each king’s attention to the empire’s internal and external conflicts. The founding of the empire is generally attributed to Babur in 1526, but the influnce and lineage of his predecessors stretched,back as far as the Turko-Mongols.
During the successive rules of Babur (1526-1530), Humayun ( 1530-1540, 1555-1556), Akbar (1556-1605), Jahangir (1605-1627), and Shah Jahan (1628-1658), the empire endured war, peace, expansion, and contraction; most significantly, however, the Mughals fostered a flourishing of culture, resulting in the art, architecture, and autobiographical memoirs that allow for a glance into the world in which these early modern kings lived.
In the Mughals empire, birds were companions, partners in the hunt, playthings, and sources of great entertainment. They were fascinating airborne creatures, worthy of great scientific attention., with their feathers adorning the jeweled turbans of only the most powerful emperors.
The presence of birds illuminated and defined the seat of the Mughal emperor as a ruler in an ancient tradition of powerful kingships.
The Simurgh Bird as a Symbol: Ties to glory and Beyond
King of birds: In mughal poetry particularly, birds have long symbolized souls — both human and divine. Nowhere is this better-represented than in Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, one of the most famous and beloved works of poetry in the Sufi tradition.
The twelfth century poem is oriented around the birds of the world, guided by the hoopoe, on a quest to find the simurgh, a monarchical, phoenix-like bird, to rule them.
Attar’s simurgh is the sovereign, the king by whom to fix the problem that the birds first gathered to address:
“All nations in the world require a king; How is it that we alone have no such thing? Only a kingdom can be justly run; We need a king and must inquire for one.”
Beyond poetry, the simurgh is widely represented in paintings, architectural details, and carpets. Jahangir had the simurgh depicted in the Kala Burj residential tower. Under his reign, the simurgh began to appear on carpets as well, which was significant for the opportunity for public viewership that far outnumbered that of many of the paintings.
The birds of the Mughal court were well-kept companions for the emperor. They were named as individuals, and their unique personality traits and personal histories were understood and remembered. Though not human, they were enfolded into the court much as human courtiers were always at the beck and call of the emperor, provided for by the empire, and kept within the garden or palatial walls of the court itself.
For the Mughals, kept birds represented an extension of the Mughal kingship over the wild world itself, blurring the boundary between the natural and human dominions and allowing the emperor to claim a more profound rulership over the land and skies of his territory.
The nightingale is the lover, obsessed with the temporal thorned beauty of the rose, to the hoopoe’s chagrin. The falcon is desperate for freedom, nervous around the ties that would bind it to God. Attar characterizes the rest of the birds similarly, defining their allegorical identities as the poem proceeds. Over the course of the tale, the majority of the birds find some excuse to fall away, losing sight of their journey, until only thirty birds remain. When the hoopoe and what is left of the flock finally reach Qaf, the home of the simurgh, they do not find the great bird. Instead, they see their own faces in a shining mirror of a lake, the representation of that long-desired Sufi goal of unity with God.
Representations of the simurgh often visualize her as a phoenix-like mother-bird. She appears throughout Arabian, Iranian, and Indian poetries, as an aid to heroes and confidante to kings. She appears in some renderings of King Solomon’s court as a companion and conversation partner. In Firdausi’s Shahnama, the pre-Islamic Iranian epic, the simurgh gifts one of her feathers to Zal, the protagonist, and promises that if he finds himself in need, he only needs to burn the feather to call her back to him.
Firdausi’s simurgh is “large enough to carry human beings, held either in its strong beak or by its powerful talons; and had glorious plumage and flowing tail feathers which reflected the color spectrum of the divine.
‘Aufi’s simurgh in Lubab al-albab holds “energy from the falcon, power of flight from the Huma, a long neck from the ostrich, a feathery collar from the ringdove, and strength from the (unicorn).
Sufi master Shihabuddin as-Suhrawardi’s “The Incantation of the Simurgh” treats the simurgh with reverence: “Know that all colours derive from Simurgh,” he writes. “All knowledge derives from the incantation of this Simurgh. The marvelous instruments of music… have been produced from its echo and its resonances…The morning breeze stems from her breath. This is why the loving tell her the mystery of their hearts.
In all of her incarnations, the simurgh is known to have a brilliant ability to reason, deep fount of wisdom, and passionate commitment to the victory of that which is morally good. Her body appeared cobbled together from various entities — much like the Mughal empire itself — and she was an immensely powerful force, imbued with the righteousness of divinity.
Huma Bird: In the Mughal tradition, the huma was a large bird that rarely touched the ground and was known to be reclusive. It would feed on dry bones alone, and its “shadow was so full of blessing power that over whomsoever it fell would become king.The huma became a well-known symbol of a kingship that was bestowed by some higher and deterministic power. To declare selection by the huma was to indicate a sort of inevitability of destiny, or a promise from these allegorical birds that represented extensions of the Divine. The huma appears in a number of stories and poems, including The Conference of the Birds, but the huma’s most charming — and powerful — appearance in Mughal courtly culture came during Humayun’s rule.
In the midst of Humayun’s mid-life exile, he sought refuge for a time at the Safavid court of Shah Tahmasp, a court which boasted an inherited Persian literary tradition full of vibrant mythologies. While at the Safavid court, Humayun reflected upon his rule and his less fortunate circumstances of the present. In 1540, he composed a brief verse that holds within it his own ambitions, expressed through the flight of the imagined bird.
All the princes seek Huma’s shadow—behold this Human (me, Humayun) who enters under your shadow.
For the Mughals, the language of avian symbolism was a tool used to justify their reigns. As they aligned themselves with the most desirable of the imagined birds, they presented a powerful empire emblazoned with divine blessings and a rule that bordered on godly.
Hawks and Falcon: Well-trained hawks and falcons were highly regarded in the Mughal court. Jahangir recorded a number of exchanges of beautiful predatory birds as gifts between prominent rulers. Moreover, his son Shah Jahan, encouraged by the elder emperor, also shared Jahangir’s love for hawking. The father and son hunted together during long marches, with Jahangir marveling at the power and training of his son’s hawks.
These predatory birds acted much as an extension of the royal body, participating in spectacular hunts that emperors embarked on to elevate their own power.
In portraits, many hunting birds are depicted in royal trappings and symbols of luxury,illustrates a common composition of a barbary falcon perched on a golden bird-rest, tethered with a silken cord, and bedecked in golden lockets and anklets.There are several such portraits of the court’s birds of prey; in the style of Akbar and Jahangir’s courts, these paintings preserved the individuality and temperaments of the birds. Each hunting bird was managed by a team of renowned falconers.
Jahangir had four chief falconers in his employ — his own chief falconer, the Kashmiri falconer, Shah Jahan’s falconer, and Shah Abbas’ falconer. Each falconer was attached to certain birds with whom they would travel and experience the royal hunt.
The relationships between Mughals and their birds were not isolated to hunting parties. Training pigeons caused great joy for — and the demise of — Babur’s father, Umar Sheikh Mirza, who died after a pigeon-house collapsed on him.
His love for pigeons passed on to his descendants, blooming into Akbar’s widely-professed love for the birds. Deep relationships were built between individual pigeons and their keepers — of Akbar’s 20,000 pigeons, he remarked that his favorite was a well-trained, bluish-gray pigeon named Mohana.
In the training of pigeons, emperors not only found companionship, but also articulated the boundaries of their kingly abilities, which included control over even the flight of birds.
The Mughal dominion over the bird world was also manifested through the aviaries kept in pleasure gardens. These were enclosures of birds maintained by eunuchs and used by emperors and their courtiers; moreover, they were spaces of entertainment, education, and controlled interaction with the animal world.
“For the Mughals, kept birds represented an extension of the Mughal kingship over the wild world itself, blurring the boundary between the natural and human dominions…”