On The Authenticity Of The Feminine Portraits of The Moghul School.

By Ordhendra C. Gangoly in RUPAM. Number 33- 34. January to April, 1928.

The portrait painters of the Moghul school have bequeathed to us a shining gallery of Beautiful Women, pictured in exquisite little miniatures, in which are recorded all the grace, the feminine charm, and the glory of womanhood set off in all the radiant halos of gorgeous dresses, fine muslins, and exquisite jewels. The Moghul miniatures, hitherto published, have done but scanty justice to the beauties of the Moghul harem, and the Moghul School of Portraiture has been chiefly studied in their masculine phases, – strong, vigorous yet delicate sketches of sultans and princes, ministers and mansabdars, courtiers and grandees, military commanders and soldiers, retainers and lackeys, and, sometimes, saints and holy men. But the queens and princesses, begums and sultânâs, the “Lights among the princesses “ (Roshanārā), the “Lights of the harem “ (Nur Mahal), the “Princesses of renown “ (Jāhānārā) and the ” Crowns of seraglios ” (Tajmahal), the ” Lights of the World ” (Nur Jähän) have been somewhat ungallantly passed over. The reason for this neglect is offered in the charge that the majority of the portraits of women, left by the Moghul school, are imaginary pictures and are not the record of actual likenesses. It has been stated that having regard to the strict purdah observed in the Moghul harem, it was impossible to obtain actual portraits of the dazzling denizens of the marble palaces, the ” Houris of an earthly paradise.” This is amply supported by the testimony of the records of European travellers, chiefly Bernier and Manucci. The former has remarked: ” Truly it is with difficulty that these ladies can be approached, and they are almost inaccessible to the sight of man “.1 Of the three things prohibited by the imperial regulations the most important was ” a too near approach to the ladies of the seraglio “. Even when the princes and emperors retired into zenanas – the apartments reserved for the ladies – they were not accompanied by any male retainers but were carried by eunuchs and even women servants on Takt-i-rawans (lit, travelling throne) a moveable seat, carried somewhat like sedan chairs, – well illustrated in the example here reproduced from the Tagore collection, Calcutta (Fig. 1). The seraglio itself was guarded by an army of eunuchs, Turkish amazons, and supervised by an hierarchy of matrons, chaperons and lady superintendents of various ranks, known under the various designations of daroghas, banus, urdu – begi, etc. Even when the ladies of the harem travelled, or went out, on particular occasions, they were carefully screened from public gaze. 

The evidence of the Venetian traveller, Niccolao Manucci is much more explicit, and based on more actual experience and personal observation than that of the French traveller quoted above. He has remarked: ” I wonder, when I find someone writing in Europe (a covert allusion to Bernier), that he managed one day to get near enough to see a woman servant whisking away the flies from Roshanārā Begam, which is an impossibility. For the princesses and nobles’ wives are shut up in such a manner that they cannot be seen, although they can observe the passers – by “.2 ” They seemed so many ghosts or spirits of the abyss, you could not tell if they were handsome or ugly, old or young, men or women; for, let alone the face, you could not see even the tips of their toes”. 3. This is amply supported by pictorial evidence, particularly, the miniature depicting a urdu-begi or woman superintendent of a harem camp, represented in a miniature reproduced in Irvine’s edition, Plate XLIII, Vol. IV, depicting a woman riding on a horse with her whole body covered by a cloak of flowered patterns, from head to foot. As to the possibility of obtaining likenesses of queens and princesses, the testimony of Manucci is quite explicit. ” I do not bring forward any portrait of queens and princesses, for it is impossible to see them, thanks to their being concealed. If anyone has produced such portraits, they should not be accepted being only the likenesses of concubines and dancing – girls, etc., which have been drawn according to the artist’s fancy” (Irvine, Vol. I, Introduction, p. liv). Armed with these apparently reliable evidences, scholars have been able to argue that the feminine portraits of the Moghul school are imaginary versions rather than actual records. ” In a society where the power of a woman is great, but where she is rather a guarded flame than one beheld of all eyes, it is natural that the portraits of women should be more idealised, less actual delineations of the outward aspect of the face, than that is the case with those of men. It must sometimes have been the case that the artist had never seen, or scarcely seen, the subject of his portrait, nor would it have accorded with good taste to multiply the likeness of noble ladies and make all men familiar with their hidden beauty. The conditions were thus favourable to the production of an ideal type. “* Some exceptions may have happened in the cases of princesses of outstanding personalities like Nur Jähän, the ” Light of the World, ” who is said to have appeared in public. It is stated, that on occasions, she used to present herself before her subjects at the jharka (balcony) in the manner and following the custom of the Moghul emperors. Indeed, several portraits of Nur Jähän represent her as seated at the jharka. It is quite possible that in her case, at least, the surviving portraits are authentic likenesses. That she used to come out of the purdah and take her share in the ordinary life and pastimes of the emperors is supported by other incidents. Thus Jahangir in his memoirs refers to an occasion when Nur Jähän actually accompanied him on a hunting expedition and shot four tigers. 


As Mr. Percy Brown has pointed out that ” even on such an adventure the queen sat in an a’mâri or covered howdah, thus screened from the public eye as much as the unusual circumstances would permit, and no doubt all members of the male sex, except those necessary for her safety, were withdrawn from the vicinity. Moreover, Jahangir, who would never have allowed such an event to pass without a pictorial record being made, refrained from doing so on this occasion due, no doubt, to gossips about the luxuriance and comforts of these baths ( many of which have survived in the remains of the old Moghul Palaces at Agra and Delhi). Here, all the faces of the bathing ladies are lacking in conviction, and are, almost all, identical in type without any individual characterization. They could not have been based on any actual study of the originals. Curiously, and by way of contrast, we notice there is a conviction and a sense of realism and intensity in the figures of the women servants and attendants depicted on the borders of the miniature, which certainly prove a contact with actual models and a close familiarity with the types depicted. Incidentally, we should like to comment on the very clever convention adopted to relate the border of the picture to the theme of the miniature itself imbedded in the centre of the border, a very familiar convention with the Moghul miniaturists. The floral border is interspersed with numerous figures of women attendants of the harem, depicted in all manner of poses awaiting the time when the ladies will come out of the bath and will finish their toilette, with the help of the attendants, who will, one after another, offer items held in charge of each, the dish of attar, the bowl of rose – water, the pot of henna – dye, the casket of sandal paste, and, lastly, the pearls and jewels. The decorative motives of the border are therefore put into an intimate relation to the context of the miniature itself.  But the various so – called portraits of Zebunnessa, daughter of Aurangzeb, which have survived in many versions deserve notice as a typical problem of the authenticity of some of the Moghul portraits. In the three examples of the reputed portrait of Zebunnessa (Figs. 15, 16, & 17) here reproduced, the faces are all different, and the only common element is the sitär, Between the first and the second example (Figs. 15 & 16) there is an additional common feature in the pose of the figure (? one. of the legs being placed across the doubled- up knee of the other leg. This may have been a characteristic habit of the princess. In the third example, a very late version the treatment is somewhat florid and flippant, if somewhat independent and cannot be said to have any relation to the other versions which appear to have some common traditional foundation. In the case of the portrait of Nur Jähän we have a common traditional sketch – outline (khākā) which is the common basis of most of the extant portraits excepting the Bodlian version (Plate XV, Binyon, ” The Court Painters of the Grand Moghuls, ” 1921). But in the Bodlian version we may perhaps hypothecate that it represents a portrait earlier than those given in our illustrations here (Figs. 15, 16 & 17) as there is somewhat authentic resemblance in the general features of the portrait in the Bodlian example as compared with the two versions here illustrated. In the case of the so called portraits of Zebunnessa which we are considering here, it is impossible to discover any common features of resemblance in the type of the face ; so that it is almost impossible to say if any of these portraits is an authentic likeness. If the Princess was fond of her sitär, that might have merely introduced as a heresay  rather than on the basis of an actual sitting.  


To sum up, with occasional exceptions, the surviving portraits of women are not, as a rule, authentic likenesses, or actual portraits, but imaginary visualisations, based perhaps on familiar types. However, the loss to History is, in this case, a distinct gain to Art. For the lack of realistic data, drives the Moghul artists to seek inspiration from an imaginary vision, and to create an ideal type of exquisite artistic convention, which transports the somewhat prosaic and pedestrian art of the Moghul court, on the wings of heightened fancy, to a higher plane of imaginative sublimation. 


  1. Bernier. ” Travels in the Moghul Empire. ” Constable, 1891, p. 373. 41 

  2. ” Storia Do Mogor. ” Irvine’s edition, Vol. II, p. 72, 73  

  3.  Ibid, vol II, p. 72, note 4

  4. *Coomaraswamy, ” Indian Drawings, ” 1, p. 15, 




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