Dragon and Makara : diversity in the depiction of fantastic animals in early Mughal painting

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Dragon and Makara : diversity in the depiction of fantastic animals in early Mughal painting

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Dragon and Maka.Pa: Diversity in the Depiction of Fantastic Animals in Early Mughal Painting

Bv Gloria Stell


A.B. (University of California) 1972

THESIS SuLmitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of


History of Art

in the



Approved: ••••••••••••••••••••

.·9~. '17~/¥!{· ................. . Committee in Charge

DEGREE CONFERRED JUNE 16.1971 • •• • •••••••

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Int r oduction .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

The Terrestri al Dragon Figure ......... ... .. . . . ................ 2 The Per sian Prot otype . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 The Ter restrial Dragon Figure i n Mughal Painting ..•...... 4 The Mar ine Dragon Fi gure :

~fakara ............................


The China- Indi a Tr ade ...................... . ........ . ........ 17

The Question of Wester n Influence ... . ..•... . ...... . .... .. .... 19 Concluding Remarks ... • .. .. • • . .•. ..... . ... . .. .. . . ....... . . • ... 22

Appendi x I •..•....•..•....•....•....•...•.••.....•.• . ......•• 24 Appendix II .• • • • •.. • .•....•. . ..•.•........•.....•......•.••.. 25

Appendix II I . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . • . . . . • • . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27

Endnotes . . . . . . . • . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . • . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . • . . . 32 •

Bibliography .... . ... . .. . •.....•................ .. ......•... . . 41

List of Plates ......... . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46

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The artistic achievement of the Mughal atelier of Akbar is often characterized as the logical culmination of the gradual trend towards realism in Persian painting of the late fifteenth and sixteenth .

cent ur1es.


While the Mughal artists maintained a recognizable Persian

structure in most of their works, their concentration on a more naturalistic representation of the flora and fauna took precedence over the careful juxtaposition of color and shape within the composition which preoccupied the typical Persian painters .

This evident concern with the

phenomenal world, however , is difficult to reconcile with the depiction of fantastic dragon figures encountered throughout the early Mughal manuscripts.

This puzzling situation is further complicated by the

early appearance of two distinct types of dragon figures in the Mughal repertory--a terrestrial dragon derived from various Persian prototypes, and the marine dragon with crocodilian features , usually identified as an Indian makara.

Through careful examination of the depiction and deploy -

ment of these two coexisting types of dragon figures , one can elucidate the conscious process of selection, adaptation, and assimilation of elements from different artistic traditions, some previously ignored, in early Mughal painting.

Such analysis can also assist in determining the

actual role that direct observation of nature had in the formation of a new and unique style of painting in the sixteenth century.

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The heavy reliance on Persian prototypes in the depiction of terrestrial dragon figures in the Hamza-nama (c. 1562-75), one of the most important manuscripts produced by the Akbar atelier (pls. 11-13), can be attributed to the supervisory presence of the Safavid master painters I-1ir Sayyid 'Ali and 'Abd al-~a.mad. 2

Yet, the degree of varia-

tion from the relatively homogeneous Safavid model (pls. 1-3) which would have been familiar to such Safavid masters in this, as well as other early Mughal productions, cannot be entirely explained by the varying degrees of the artists' skill within Akbar's atelier; nor can this variation be attributed to the propensity of the artist to alter certain anatomical details or coloration of foreign models. 3


factors, such as the studying and copying of earlier Persian paintings and ' manuscripts available in the imperial library, and the various different stylistic traditions of the artists within the Mughal atelier, might have contributed to some of the differences in representation. 4 With such a wide latitude, however, it is surprising that the depiction of the dragon figure on land did not vary more.

Instead, the major modi-

fication appeared in the deployment of the dragon within the composition-a change that reflects a contemporary tendency in Mughal painting. The Persian Prototype The Persian dragon figure derived from the well-established Chinese motif appears in


Eastern paintings and manuscripts as early as

the thirteenth century during the Il-khan period.5

The Chinese model

(pls. 4-10), formulated from the "nine resemblances" defined in Chinese

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encyclopedic collections , underwent constant modification both i n form and function as it was gradually assimilated into the artistic repertories of the various Persian schools. 6

The great variety i n representations

of dragons in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (due in part to the different centers of Persian painting and their fluctuating periods o f ascendency) seems to have diminished by the early sixteenth century , coinciding with the formation of t he Safavid school by Shah Isma ' il Safavi (c . 1501- 24).

In the hands of this well- organized and developed

school of painting , the portrayal of the dragon figure based on models formulated in Herat in the fifteenth century achieved a high degree of standardization which was to remain relatively unchanged into the seventeenth century (cf . pls . 1- 3) . 1

This Safavid model must have been

transmitted to Mughal India by such Persian masters as Mir Sayyid ' Ali and ' Abd al - Samad , t wo of the finest artists from the Safavid atelier of • Sh~h

+ahma.sp (c. 1524- 76) . The only Chinese elements that defied assimilation in the Safavid

representations of dragons were the foliate- like appendages , often interpreted as flames , which extend above each of the legs (cf . pls . 4- 10) . The curved fangs , often accompanied by even rows of flat teeth , of the Chinese dragon (cf. pl. 4) were repositioned i n the mouth by Persian artists (cf . pl . 2) .

Emphasized by their juxtaposition wi th the reddish

gum of the mouth , the dragon ' s fangs were employed for their decorative quality as well as their emotional impact.

The clawed toes , no longer

spread apart from one another in the usual Chinese fashion , were given a more feline appearance . 9

The dual " deer" horns o f the Chinese dragon

were fused into a single protrusion from the top of the head , while the t wo deep- set eyes and bushy eyebrows were replaced by a single eye surrounded by a multicolored , flame- shaped aureole , similar to t he depiction

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of eyes found in Persian demon figures (cf. pl. 23). The strict profile view and the distinctly carneloid depiction of the dragon's face in Persian paintings (pls. 1-3) give little indication of the great variety of Chinese dragon figures found on ceramics (pls.

4-8), on lacquer ware, and in painting (pls. 9-10), which served as the


original inspi ration for the Persian works. 1

Furthermore, significant

variations are found in the depiction of the body of the Persian dragon figure.

The scal es of the Chinese model were often discarded in favor

of a smooth body, or one segmented by parallel back ridges, both of which occasionally di s play spotted markings and a top crest running from the head to the tip of the tail.

The dramatic side whiskers of

the Chinese examples were abandoned, their place taken by flames jutting from the mouth in some cases.

This new feature may have been a misinter-

pretation of the flaming gem often pursued by the Chinese dragon (cf . •

pl. 8); it also may have been one of the rare occurrences of Western influence, or perhaps, a combination of both Chinese and Western elements (Appendix I).

Finally, the Persianized dragon was no longer portrayed

flying through clouds (pls. 5, 7) and flowers (pl. 6), above waves (pl. 4), or as a vehicle for Chinese immortals (pl. 9).


Persian painters occasionally depicted the dragon figure in the water, this animal appeared more frequently in a landscape setting with its body coiled around the surrounding mountains in the very un-Chinese role of adversary (cf. pls. 1-3). The Terrestrial Dragon Figure in Mughal Painting The profile view, single horn, foliate appendages, and other features associated with the Safavid model also appear in Mughal depictions of the terrestrial dragon figure in early manuscripts.

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obvious difference between the Safavid models (pls . 1 - 3) and Mughal representations (pls . 11- 14 , 16- 19) is the dissimilar coloring.


Safavi d dragons tend to be dark - bodi ed with a lighter underbelly and have accents of brighter colors in the facial area (eye, mouth and beard) and on the foliate leg appendages .

Although certain Persian

examples also display spots on the body , they appear to be quite different from the smaller , more regular markings frequently found in Mughal miniatures (pls. 13-14, 17 , 19) .

Even though this divergence from the

Safavid mode of depiction can be dismissed as one of the usual alterations of a copyist , certain other peculi arities found in the Mughal figures indicate that the Mughal artists were not solely dependent on the Safavid prototypes in their representation of dragon figures . The possibility that Mughal artists drew on another Persian model or on a combination of other Persian prototypes is indicated by the presence of two similar depictions of dragon figures in the early Mughal manuscripts of the Tuti- nama (c. 1560- 65 [ pl. 14]) and Hamza- nama (c. 1562- 75 [pl. 13]) .

The similar features of the pink body with paral-

lel segments accented by regular markings in dark red , the absence of a crest running the length of the body and the less distinctly cameloid depiction of the snout are also found in the figure of a dragon from the Qisas al ' Anbiya (History of the Prophets) , a Sultanate manuscript produced in Jaunpur from 1530 to 1550 (pl . 15).

The notion that

a pre- Mughal native " Indian" tradition might have asserted itself even at this early stage , however , must be examined in terms of an unbiased analys i s of dragon figures in later Mughal works. The dead dragon represented in the Anwar-i Suhai li (c. 1570 [pl . 15]) also possesses the additional foliate appendage extending from the neck found in the two previous Mughal examples (pls. 13 , 14); Digitized by


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6 but , except for the unique green coloring with dark green spots , it seems to correspond to the models of the Safavid school in facial and anatomical details .

The head of the dragon in a painting from the

D~r~b-n!una. (c . 1580 - 84 [pl . 17]) is also clearly in the Safavid tradi -

tion , though it too di splays the same parallel segments accented with regular rows of dots as in the Tuti- nama and 13- 14).


figures (pls .

The latest surviving example of a terrestrial dragon figure in

Mughal painting from an unidentified manuscript (c . 1595 [pl . 19]) is a good representation of the culmination of the previous aspects first encountered in the earlier Mughal works .

The brilliant pink body of

the dragon is composed of the parallel segments with faint regular markings in darker p i nk first seen in the Tut i-nama figures (pl . 14) , though now the body has gained a sense of volume through modeling . Despite the foliate appendage extending from its neck , the face also fits the Safavid prototype (cf . pl . 2) , as does the placement of its body in a landscape setting with its forepaw grasping a branch and tail encircli ng a tree .

Thus , even if Sultanate painting provided one of

the prototypes for the early depictions of the dragon figure in Mughal painting , this model , perhaps due to the similarity of the features , was soon overwhelmed by the more polished Safavid representation . The ascendency of the Safavid type , however , seems to have been a gradual development .

During the ·f orrnati ve period of Mughal painting,

in such manuscripts as the Hamza- nama (pl. 12) and Dar ab- nama (pl . 18) , there appears a variant of the Safavid type .

This variant depiction ,

while maintaining the same basic Safavid features , seems to be more stylized , reflecting a different , more decorative appr oach .

The large

mottled spots of the body set off against a lighter background color ,

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7 the more massive appearance of the body , and the large head supported by a slim neck recall similar depictions associated with the Bukhara school (cf. pl. 20) , the closest Persian center of painting to Mughal India.

Since this school , established in the early sixteenth century ,

was an offshoot of the same migration of artists from the late Timurid capital of Herat from which the Safavid school was formed , the dragon figures of these two schools did not differ radically in depiction. 11 The similar heritage of these two centers of painting , coupled with the fact that the Bukhara school was also one of the sources of preMughal Sultanate painting , assured a certain degree of receptivity of the Bukharan prototype by the Mughal painters .


The school of Bukhara was also the site of another contemporaneous current of depicting dragons and other fantastic animals, characterized by the use of a subdued palette of neutral tones and emphasis on the calligraphic element in design , which coexisted in the other centers of Tabriz and Istanbul (cf . pl. 21). 13

This style of painting, more akin

to ink drawings , originally provided decorative patterns for bookbindings, margin illustrations and textile motifs , though by the late fifteenth and early sixteen centuries , it also furnished models for court painters .

One such mid-sixteenth century work, the provenance of

which is in dispute (pl. 2la) , actually displays the same type of markings and body proportions as the Mughal dragon figures ascribed to possible Bukharan prototypes (pls. 12, 18) --suggesting that such drawings , as well as finished paintings, provided one of the prototypes for the Mughal depictions .

Other earlier examples of this style , character-

ized by the placement of fantastic animals in a landscape setting (pl. 2lb), also could have served as the model for the third type of dragon figure encountered in the Hamza- nama (pls . 11 , 23).

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shimmering spots on the surface of this


figure is closer to

Persian ink drawings of dragon figures in a landscape setting than any other example to be found in Persian painting.

Thus , it is evident

that this coexisting current of dragon depiction should also be considered as one of the possible prototypes for the terrestrial dragon figure in Mughal miniatures . In contrast to the relatively close correlation between Persian and Mughal depictions of dragon figures , the manner in which the dragon functions within the Mughal compositions has undergone a radical transformation .

While the dragon is shown both as a land and water animal

in Persian paintings and manuscripts (pls . 1 - 3 , 24), the Persian- based dragon figure is never found in the water in Mughal productions (Appendi x II) .

The more frequent Persian portrayal of a dragon in a

landscape setting focuses on the conflict between man and beast .


Among the numerous examples of dragons in Mughal painting only one painting in the Hamza-nruna (pl . 12) truly corresponds to this type of representation .

Unlike any dragon found in Persian painting , however ,

the monumental dragon figure has been placed at a 45° angle from its usual portrayal emerging from the mountains.16

This placement might

be the result of a peripheral exigency--the need to show the dragon emerging from the hole - ridden land of Abyssin i a; but the unusual placement is furthe r accompanied by a novel ferociousness , emphasized by the flames radiating from its paws , head and mouth , and by its size, enhanced by the white body , which is much more explicit than those dragons in Safavid or Bukharan paintings. Although the " dragon- as - adversary " is seen in both examples of dragon figures in the Darab- nama (pls . 17- 18) , these t wo Mughal paintings

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9 show a further departure from the typical Persian compositional for mula.

Even though one of these dragon figures (pl . 18) corresponds to

the Hamza-nama dragon (pl. 12) in its general configuration and stylization (suggesting contact with the Hamza-nama example, or one based on a similar prototype), it has lost most of its ferociousness, despite the great many flames issuing from its mouth.

This loss might

be due in part to the lesser skill of the artist, assumed from the awkward depiction of the body, resulting in a more decorative, but less emotion- provoking figure. is more a result of the


The loss of dramatic tension , however, of the focus from confrontation to the

reactions of the fleeing figures.

Indeed, Darab seems to ignore the

approaching dragon, his head turned back toward the disappearing figures.

This change to a "pre- attack" focus is also evident in the

other example of a dragon in the same manuscript (pl. 17).


the composition is limited to Darab and the dragon, the hero does not advance toward the monster as in usual Persian depictions (cf. pl. 3).


is portrayed without a weapon, his state of surprise

clearly indicated by the characteristic placement of the finger on the mouth .

The dragon figure, though it displays a better understand-

ing of the anatomical details of the Persian model , is shown in a curious arch which is best explained as the Mughal adaptation of a dragon figure encircling a mountain now placed on flat ground. In contrast to the pre- conflict orientation seen in the Darab-narna, the Tuti- nama 's two examples of dragon figures based on Persian prototypes (pl. 14) focus on the aftermath of such a contest with the dragon figures shown dead--one with its legs turned up into the air (pl. 14a) and the other without its head (pl . 14b) .

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paintings, therefore, becomes quite different from contemporary Persian examples.

The Mughal beast loses some of its terrifying character, and,

commensurately, the human opponent appears less heroic in stature.


fact, the Mughal artist occasionally did not focus on the dragon at all, relegating it to a secondary position, as seen in the other two examples of dragons in the Hamza-n~ (pls. 11, 13).

In the painting where

Hamza is requested to kill a dragon (pl. 11), the dragon has been reduced in scale, and placed in the far right corner, clearly out of the main focus of the artist on the scene unfolding in the courtyard. The dragon's presence is correspondingly diminished to the point that it is more of a spectator rather than a force to be reckoned with.


the other Hamza-nama painting (pl. 13), the dragon figure has become one of the various animal mounts for humans in the battle scene. 18 the last extant example of the


Persianized dragon figure in Mughal

painting (pl. 19), the dragon is merely one of the creatures of the forest. Apart from the minor modifications of the physical appearance of the dragon figure, the function of the dragon derived from Persian prototypes displays a surprising degree of variation in Mughal painting. This modification can be attributed to the Mughal artists' paramount interest in the depiction of human figures and their reactions to the dragon.

Although Mughal reliance on Persian models for their depiction

of the dragon cannot be denied, Mughal artists were not bound to the homogeneous representations of dragon figures found in contemporary Safavid painting.

Their exploitation of the various possibilities of

different forms of depiction and their employment of such figures in ways unthinkable to traditional Persian painters demonstrate the great creativity of Mughal painters during the time of Akbar. Digitized by


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' The physical appearance of 1'1ughal dragon figures derived from ' Persian prototypes seems relatively consistent in comparison with

the depiction of the second type of dragon figure found in early Mughal manuscripts, commonly identified as a makara (pls . 26- 41). 1 9

As in

the case of the Persian-derived dragon, a certain degree of artistic variety in depictions of the makara can be attributed to the different levels of skill of the artists in the atelier.

The makara ' s usual

peripheral placement in the water, making it less subject to careful scrutiny, might also have contributed to the lack of standardization in the early stages of Mughal painting (cf. pls . 26-29).

The earlier

native Indian tradition of depicting makara , examples of which are still to be seen at the monuments of Bharhut and


(pl. 24) , and

in the paintings of Ajanta (pl . 25), is another factor to consider in the analysis of the Mughal representation.

This tradition itself also

varies in its portrayal of these marine creatures, some features of which clearly relate to the native fauna of India. 20

Models for the

early Indian representations of makara figures in the North included the Indian elephant (pl. 24a) and crocodil ia (pl . 24b) .

India actually

has three distinct types of crocodilia--the salt-water crocodile, the more common marsh or mugger crocodile, and the Indian gavial . 21


of the wide distribution of the marsh crocodile and Indian gavial the Mughal artists may also have relied on direct observation in their representation of these animals in painting .

Yet such factors as the

varying degree of the skill of the Mughal artists , the previous native artistic traditions, and direct observation still do not account for

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certain peculiar features in the Mughal depictions of the makara. These features may be explained as the influence of foreign models of similar marine animals , such as the Chinese dragon, previously overlooked in the study of Mughal painting.

Thus the study of the depic-

tion of the makara in early Mughal miniatures elucidates the very complex interaction of direct observation with different artistic traditions, both native and foreign, in the formation of this particular motif. Although depictions of full figure makara in or near water do appear in Mughal painting (pls. 31, 35- 38), the earlier and more frequent representations are usually limited to a view of the head protruding from the waves (pls. 26- 29).


In these early exampl es, the general

configuration of the head with its flame- shaped aureoles around the eye and occasional spotted markings seems to indicate fam i liarity with dragon figures in the water in Persian miniatures available in the imperial library (cf . pl . 24).


The single horn , distinctly cameloid

snout, and forelegs in the usual Persian exmaples, however, were rejected even at this earl y stage.

Such non- Persian features as the

straight muzzle, often with paral lel striations, up- turned snout


barbs from the nose , large fleshy ears , and outward curving fangs in some of the Mughal makara figures (pls. 26- 30) display a close correspondence with the earlier native Indian tradition which combined features of the e l ephant and crocodile (cf. pls . 24- 25) .

Cl ose observa-

tion of two early makara figures in the Tuti- nama (pl . 26b: center) and Hamza- nama (pl. 29b) reveals a discrepancy between the novel angle of the head with two eyes (which cannot be accounted for by direct observation) found in these two examples and the strict profile view in both Persian (cf. pl . 23) and Indian examples (pl s. 24- 25).

This three-

quarter view of the head and the two outward curving fangs in the very Digitized by


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• •



skillful ill ust::--s.":.i0 n cf the r::.. of the rnakara is supported by analysis of the first



•' ' " t'


........ . ...

1' , ........ ,,.1"' \ ... ' '

ex:\r.:~· .le 1.'f :\

t'u l l


figure representation found in the Tilasm manuscript (1.· . 1 '>l'i [ rl . :\l]) . · ·1 The longer snout , curvature of the mouth , prominent


:1l),'\"t' tht'

two eyes , the five digits of the forelegs and fow· of the hind l t't-"::; , the scaly green body with a white underbelly all indicate di rt•,·t. kn,'w ledge of the Indian marsh crocodile throur,h actunl ol)servatit'll or description (such as the one furnished by Bli.bnr :

J\p1)e11~lix IIl) ,

reliance on previous paintings based on first - hnnd experi