Episode Transcript – Episode 82 - Miniature of a Mughal prince

Miniature of a Mughal prince (painted around 1610). Watercolour; from India

In today's world of global politics, the image is, almost, everything. We're all familiar with the carefully staged photographs of leaders who know exactly what it means to be pictured with a particular royal, politician or celebrity. When it comes to the politics of faith, it's even more important to be seen with the right religious leader, and it can be riskier. To be seen shaking hands with the Pope or the Dalai Lama, for instance, may bring electoral benefits, though it may also have tricky political consequences. But few political leaders today would choose to make a public display of humility, by being seen receiving religious instruction, or even reprimand.

All the objects this week explore the relationship between different faiths four to five hundred years ago. In seventeenth-century India, the dialogue between power and faith was every bit as complex and as explosive as it is today, but around 1610, the photo-opportunities were very different - no press photographs, no 24-hour television news, just painting. Painting aimed at a very targeted audience, and it's such a painting that I want to look at in this programme - a miniature from Mughal India that embodies a rare, perhaps a unique, relationship between the world of the ruler and the realm of faith.

"The message is that a ruler must know his people, his subjects - especially in a country like India, where there were several religions co-existing. And they also should know that their king is to protect every single religion." (Asok Kumar Das)

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe and Asia were dominated by three great Islamic empires - Turkey, Iran and, richest by far, Mughal India. It reached its height in the years around 1600 under Emperor Akbar, who was almost an exact contemporary of our Elizabeth I, and it continued to flourish under his son Jahangir. Our painting was made during Jahangir's reign.

The Mughal Empire was vast, stretching from Kabul in Afghanistan in the west, across 1,400 miles (2,250 km) to Dhaka in modern Bangladesh in the east. But, unlike the Iranian Safavids or the Ottoman Turks, the Muslim rulers of the Mughal Empire ruled an overwhelmingly non-Muslim people. Besides Jains and Buddhists, perhaps 75 per cent of their population were Hindu.

Now, unlike Christians and Jews, Hindus are not recognised in the Koran as another people of the book, and so in theory they were not even necessarily to be tolerated, which was a tricky fact that the Mughal emperors always had to accommodate. They managed it by adopting a policy of wide religious inclusion. Akbar and Jahangir worked easily with many faiths. They had Hindu generals in their armies, and close contacts with holy men, Muslim or Hindu, were a fundamental part of the life and outlook of the Mughal elite. Indeed, regular meetings with religious figures were a key political strategy of the state, publicised through high-profile visits and also through the media of the day - paintings like the one in this programme.

Our painting is a miniature, an art form popular at courts from London and Paris to Isfahan and Lahore. And Mughal miniatures show that Indian painters were well aware of developments both in Persia and in Europe. It's been dated to around 1610, and it shows an encounter between a rich young nobleman, perhaps a prince of the ruling Mughal Dynasty, and a holy man who has neither wealth nor power.

The miniature is about the size of the cover of a hardback book. It shows us a landscape and, in the centre, is the encounter between the holy man and the prince. The holy man is on the left, grey-haired and bearded and wearing a simple robe, cloak and turban. He is sitting on the ground, and beside him is a forked stick - the distinctive arm-rest or crutch of the dervish, the Islamic holy man.

Kneeling in front of him is a young man wearing a purple costume covered with gold embroidery, with a jewelled dagger at his waist, and a green turban with a feather. Contemporary sources tell us that a green turban is a sign of high status, and that a dagger like this one was obligatory for a noble. This is clearly a rich young man. The two figures, the ascetic dervish and the lavishly dressed prince, are shown on a slightly raised platform in front of a domed pavilion. It's clearly an Islamic shrine, built around the tomb of some revered religious figure. A delicately painted tree overshadows the central figures. At its base is a solitary blue iris, and behind, a rolling landscape disappears into the distance.

In Mughal painting, landscape is often every bit as important as the figures. The Mughals were famous for their ornamental gardens, which were not merely places of pleasure but also physical metaphors for the Islamic paradise. So this is an appropriate setting for our rich young man to be discussing belief with a Muslim teacher. In this idyllic setting, power has met piety, and they're in debate.

In attendance on the prince are horses and colourfully dressed courtiers. More surprisingly, below the Muslim dervish crouches a half-naked man wearing white headgear, who could be a fakir or an ascetic, perhaps a follower of the dervish - but who very intriguingly, since he's not wearing a turban, could also be a Hindu holy man.

We asked Asok Kumar Das, an expert in Mughal art, to tell us about the purpose of this painting, and to comment on the possible presence of both Muslim and Hindu figures in one image:

"Initially these were specifically meant for the eyes of the king, or the members of the royal family, or whom the king wanted. But later on they became fairly universal, and we find the same painting or similar paintings in albums and in other books. It does have a specific message to convey, because Akbar, when he started his great empire-building process . . . there were wars, but at the same time he sent the message that he is not open to war but open to friendship. And there were matrimonial relationships between the Hindus and other princes, and that is something very, very unusual for a Muslim ruler of the sixteenth century. And some of his closest nobles and some of his principle courtiers were Hindus, and they remained Hindus. There was no animosity between the faith of the king, of the ruler, and them. So the message is that here is one king who is not only going to tolerate, but also going to be very friendly, and at the same time co-exist in peace and harmony."

In India, the notion of a powerful ruler humbling himself before the wisdom of a holy man has a very long history. It's part of a tradition of religious tolerance that was a legacy of the Mughals' great ancestors, Genghis Khan and Tamerlaine. It was one of the distinctive features of their great conquests, and it differentiated the Mughal Empire from other Islamic states. In the opening section of his autobiography, Jahangir celebrates the tolerance of his father Akbar, in contrast to his contemporaries in Turkey and Iran. In Akbar's India, Jahangir writes:

" . . . there was room for the professors of opposite religions, and for beliefs, good and bad, and the road to altercation was closed. Sunnis and Shias met in one mosque, Christians and Jews in one church, and observed their form of worship."

Britain's first ambassador to the Mughal court, who arrived in 1617, memorably recorded Jahangir's own affirmation of religious tolerance, voiced during what was clearly a not unusual drunken evening:

"The good king fell to dispute the laws of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. And in drink was so kind that he turned to me, and said: 'Am I a king? You shall be welcome.' Christians, Moors, Jews, he meddled not with their faith. They came all in love, and he would protect them from wrong. They lived under his safety and none should oppress them. And this often repeated. But in extreme drunkenness he fell to weeping and to divers passions, and so kept us till midnight."

Drunk or sober, Jahangir was a strikingly tolerant ruler. As he travelled through his Empire, thousands would have been present to watch the Emperor's visits to holy men and to their shrines, and to witness his public demonstration of a multi-faith society in action. But Jahangir also seems to have been driven by his own, personal desire to explore the spiritual truths of other religious traditions. He had many private meetings with a renowned Hindu hermit, Gosa'in Jadrup, and he describes one of these in his autobiography:

"The place he had chosen to live in was a hole on the side of a hill, which had been dug out and a door made. In this narrow and dark hole he passes his time in solitude. In the cold days of winter, though he is quite naked, with the exception of a piece of rag that he has in front and behind, he never lights a fire. I conversed with him, and he spoke well, so much as to make a great impression on me."

The tone of Jahangir's narrative suggests that encounters like this were spiritually, as well as politically, significant in the life of the Mughal ruling elite. And certainly, meetings like these, which show the powerful and the rich learning from the holy poor, are very hard to match in other societies. The Indian historian Aman Nath reflects on the encounters between politicians and holy men in India across the centuries:

"Born in India and, you know, being part of its culture, civilisation, history, it seems to me a very normal scene for us. You know, even today, not much has changed, because people in position and power go and visit holy people, and all the politicians go visiting holy people, perhaps for the wrong reasons too. But in the painting that we're talking about, faith in this case is far above power and politics. Because a prince who has other priorities as a young man, is born, is conditioned, to think that if you get the blessings of holy people that all will be well in your reign. And the fact that he is not coerced, or . . . you know, he just visits a Sufi saint, and he bends his neck. That I think is the key thing in the painting, because a man of greater wealth, power, ambition, sits on the ground and kneels before a man who has sacrificed everything. Less is more in India, and just as well, because there's so much poverty that that 'less than' gets related to the divine. And it becomes a form of compensation to say, 'holy men want nothing, it's only foolish men and greedy people who seek everything'."

It's almost impossible to imagine a European ruler at this date, or indeed at any date, being represented so submissively taking instruction in faith. In spite of all the political upheavals in India since the time of Jahangir, this tradition of the state accommodating all religions with equal respect, was to endure, and was to become one of the founding ideals of modern India.

In the next programme, we're once again in a culture that embraces both Hinduism and Islam. I'll be travelling south, to the islands of Indonesia . . . with a shadow puppet.