Emperor Jahangir: The Naturalist



Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1569 to 1627) loved the finer things in life. He was known for his love of art, wine and literature but he also had a rather wild side. He loved animals and collected them from many different sources. He observed them closely and, like a true naturalist, made copious notes. Only, the Emperor’s experiments were not always scientific.

Jahangir’s connection with animals ran deep and was forged even before his birth. The story goes that when his mother was having some trouble during her pregnancy, his father Akbar vowed he would never go on a hunt on Fridays with cheetahs (they were like hunting dogs for the Mughals) This worked, all went well, and Jahangir was born.

Akbar hunting with cheetahs
Akbar hunting with cheetahs|V&A

From a very young age, Jahangir had an insatiable curiosity about the world around him. He was a keen observer and exhibited unusual attention to detail. He combined this with the great wealth he had inherited to delve deeper and deeper into the natural world. Animals and birds held a deep fascination for him, and he got his royal artists to create some of the most exact and beautiful illustrations of animals, both native and exotic. They are also among the earliest paintings of exotic birds and animals done in India.

Stories of Jahangir’s fascination with the natural world abound and have been recounted by Author Parvati Sharma in her book ‘Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal’. It is said that while his father Akbar was known for his statesmanship and secular beliefs, and son Shah Jahan for the great buildings he constructed, Jahangir can be called one of the first recorded naturalist in India!

Turkey cock by Mansoor
Turkey cock by Mansoor|V&A

Jahangir established a world-class atelier or workshop to support his love of miniature art on becoming emperor in 1605. One of its stars was the artist Mansoor, who created some of the most spectacular miniatures of the animal world.

In 1612, Jahangir is believed to have received a turkey cock from Goa, and this was illustrated in a miniature painting by Mansoor. A few years later, in 1619, he received a Barbary falcon as a gift from Shah Abbas of Persia. He found it so rare and beautifully patterned that when it died, he ordered that a likeness be made of the bird.

Brown dipper by Mansoor
Brown dipper by Mansoor|Met Museum

In 1620, Jahangir visited Kashmir and spotted a brown dipper, which he described in his biography, Tuzk-e-Jahangiri-

“... In this stream, I saw a bird like a saj. It dives and remains for a long time underneath and then comes up from a different place. I ordered them to catch and bring two or three of these birds, that I might ascertain whether they were waterfowl and were web-footed, or had open feet like land birds. They caught two... One died immediately and the other lived for a day. Its feet were not webbed like a duck's. I ordered Nadirul-asr Ustad Mansur to draw its likeness.”

An illustration of the dodo with other birds by Mansoor
An illustration of the dodo with other birds by Mansoor|Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the illustration of the now extinct dodo created in Jahangir’s atelier is said to be one of the most accurate illustrations of the bird.

Zebra by Mansoor
Zebra by Mansoor|V&A

Jahangir was also a collector of exotic animals. Once, one of his noblemen, Mir Jafar, received a zebra from some Turks who were travelling from Ethiopia. Mir Jafar promptly gifted the animal to Jahangir. Initially, it was thought that the animal was a horse painted with black stripes. It is said there were even attempts to ‘scrub’ the zebra clean! But soon it was discovered that the animal had indeed been born with stripes. A beautiful and accurate image of this zebra was soon created in the Mughal atelier. Jahangir later went on to gift the zebra to the Shah of Iran, with whom he often exchanged exotic gifts.

A 19th century copy of Mansoor’s original painting of cranes
A 19th century copy of Mansoor’s original painting of cranes|V&A

The most peculiar story of Jahangir and the animal world revolves around a pair of Sarus cranes he owned. They were a couple and called them Laila and Majnu. The cranes were brought to the Mughal court as chicks and, five years later, the person who took care of them told the Emperor that they had mated. Jahangir is said to have been thrilled when the female crane laid two eggs.

He kept a close watch on the cranes and observed their nesting pattern. He observed that the female ‘sat on the eggs by herself all night’ while the male stood guard. ‘Once a large weasel appeared, and he ran at it with great vehemence.’ When dawn broke, the father would go to the mother and scratch her with his beak, and exchange places with her for a turn at nesting their eggs.

When the eggs hatched, the Emperor was very protective towards the chicks. He spent as much time watching them as he could and ordered that they be ‘brought very carefully so they wouldn’t be hurt’.

He observed that the male had a tendency to carry his chicks upside down. Jahangir had the male separated from the chicks till it was established ‘that its action had been affectionate’.

Markhor
Markhor|Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum

The Emperor carried his fascination into animal procreation further by cross-breeding two sub-species of goats – Markhor and Barbari. He pronounced the attempt a success and wrote. ‘What can be written of their playfulness, the funny things they do, and their leaping and bounding about? They do things that make one want to watch them in spite of oneself. I enjoyed them so much, I ordered them always to be kept nearby, and each of them was given a suitable name.’

His observations were so astute that he stated that while normal goat kids would bleat and cry before suckling, the cross breeds ‘do not cry at all but act extremely independent’. For all the attention he paid the goats, the Emperor wasn’t sentimental about them. Instead, he looked forward to eating them! He wrote that ‘their meat may also be quite delicious’.

But Jahangir did have a kinder side. He prohibited animal slaughter in the empire on Thursdays as well as during the Jain paryushana festival.

Jahangir on a lion hunt
Jahangir on a lion hunt|Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t just the physical appearance of animals that fascinated Jahangir; he was also deeply interested in their anatomy. So, to discover the source of the lion’s courage, he decided to conduct an autopsy. He wrote: ‘I wanted to open it up and have a look... unlike other animals, whose gall bladders are outside the liver, lions’ gall bladders are located inside.’ According to Jahangir, this probably held the key to the animal’s brave heart!


The Mughal Emperor’s near obsession with lions was insatiable. Once, his grandson Dawarbakhsh brought him a strange pair of animals – a lion and a goat that shared the same cage and an ‘extraordinary affection’ for each other.

Mu’tamad Khan wrote about the event. Jahangir saw this phenomenon as an excellent way to continue his observation and experimentation with the natural world. First, ‘it was ordered that the goat be taken away to a distance and concealed’. On seeing this, the lion began to fret. Then, another goat of exactly the same shape and size was thrust into the cage. The lion wasn’t fooled. Next, they tried a sheep, which also didn’t work. Finally, Jahangir had the original goat brought back, prompting a loving reunion between the animals. The lion ‘took the goat upon its bosom, and licked its face’, causing much amusement in the court.

The Emperor’s idiosyncrasies sometimes put those who served him in quite a spot. He said that physicians had told him that lion’s milk benefitted the eyes. He decided to test the theory but his employees were unable to extract milk from a lioness’s breast. He mentions two possible hypotheses: ‘It occurs to me that since it is an animal of an irascible nature, either milk is produced in the breasts of mothers out of the affection they feel… when the cubs drink and suck, or else when it's breasts are squeezed to produce milk, its irascibility increases and its breasts dry up.’


Jahangir was also interested in the eating habits of animals. He ate only fish with scales, which he explained wasn’t due to the Shiite law but because fish without scales ate carrion, which went against his fastidious nature.

There was this time he decided to interrupt a snake that was eating a rabbit so that he could observe the process minutely. So he ordered his scouts to pick up the snake, which was startled and dropped his meal. Unperturbed, Jahangir ordered his scouts to stuff the rabbit back into the snake’s mouth, ‘but no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t get it back in. In fact, they used so much force that they tore a corner of the snake’s mouth’. His scouts decided to dissect they snake and found another rabbit in its belly, something the snake had managed to swallow before it was interrupted by the Emperor! Well, it hardly mattered now.

With the passage of time, towards the end of his life, Jahangir became more and more obsessive about what he ate. As he put it, ‘because of the fastidiousness and caution I have in such matters, I order [animals] cleaned in my presence, and I take it upon myself to inspect their stomachs in order to ascertain what they have eaten’.

The black-crowned night heron with a lily
The black-crowned night heron with a lily|British Library

If an animal was found to have eaten a disgusting meal, the entire species would be struck off Jahangir’s menu. This happened with drakes. ‘I saw a domestic drake eating disgusting worms’. Waterfowls – ‘from its stomach came a bug so big that if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed anything so large could be swallowed’. And herons – ‘ten bugs came out of its stomach, and they were so revolting that I shudder to think about them’.

Jahangir was such a keen observer of the animal kingdom that he was often better at it than his scouts and gamekeepers. Once his head scout found a quail which lacked the markings that distinguish male from female. Jahangir, however, was sure it was a female. On dissecting it, his pronouncement was confirmed as its belly contained several half-formed eggs. ‘The female’s head and beak are smaller than the male’s... with much observation and perseverance, one gets the knack,’ wrote the emperor, with feigned modesty.

Hiran Minar
Hiran Minar |Wikimedia Commons

One of the most unique monuments created during Mughal rule is the Hiran Minar in Shiekhupura district of Punjab. It is a memorial to a favourite trained antelope called Hansraj, who assisted Jahangir on many hunts. The emperor honoured the animal by prohibiting the hunting of any antelope in this area.

Jahangir often used animals as a metaphor for life. This is reflected in his observations about the cuckoo during his stay in Allahabad, when he was the crown prince. He observed, ‘The cuckoo is a bird something like a raven, but it is smaller. A raven’s eyes are black but the cuckoo’s are red. The female has white spots and the male is totally black. The male has a very beautiful voice, completely beyond comparison with the female’s.

The cuckoo is really the nightingale of India, but whereas the nightingale is agitated in the spring, the cuckoo gets agitated at the beginning of the monsoon, which is the spring of Hindustan. Its cry is extremely pleasant. Its period of agitation coincides with the maturing of mangoes, and mostly the cuckoo sits on mango trees. It must enjoy the colour and scent of the mangoes.

‘One of the strange things about the cuckoo is that it doesn’t hatch its own eggs. When it is ready to lay an egg, it finds an unprotected raven’s nest, breaks the raven’s eggs with its beak and throws them out, and then lays its own eggs and flies away. The raven thinks they are its own eggs, hatches them, and rears them. I have seen this strange thing myself in Allahabad.’

Scholars have associated this particular observation as a comment on the rearing of his oldest son Khusrau, who was practically raised by his grandfather, Akbar.

 A miniature depicting  Jahangir and the Safavid Shah Abbas I, with the lion and the goat as metaphors for  Mughal-Safavid relations
A miniature depicting Jahangir and the Safavid Shah Abbas I, with the lion and the goat as metaphors for Mughal-Safavid relations|Wikimedia Commons

Jahangir’s connection to the animal world, and his observations and perseverance became legendary. In fact, historian Henry Beveridge said that Jahangir would have been a ‘better and happier’ man if he had been the ‘head of a natural history museum’ instead of the grand Mughal Empire!

Noted Mughal historian Ebba Koch differs with this line of though and presents Jahangir as an ideal of Solomonic Kingship, a ruler who brings peace between the lion and the lamb.

It has been said about Jahangir that he was happiest in the company of children and animals. He was a man of many contradictions, immeasurably kind and cruel by parts, lost to pleasures while also being an acute observer of the world. Maybe one of the reasons for this duality comes from the responsibilities and intrigues associated with being Emperor of such a vast and complicated empire.

Jahangir’s reign ended in 1627 with his passing. He was succeeded by his son Shah Jahan, after a bloody war of succession. Since Shah Jahan was more focused on building monuments on a massive scale, he didn’t focus closely on miniature art and he definitely didn’t have an affinity for animals. However Jahangir’s legacy survives in the rollicking tales within the Tuzk-i-Jahangiri and in miniatures of animals which are today spread across the world.

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