Published On: March 16, 20231370 words6.9 min read

The Mughal era, especially the ruling period of the great Mughal emperors, namely Babur, Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangazeb, is one of the most significant periods of Indian history. This era saw the rise of revolutions in the social, administrative, and cultural lives of the Indian common people. This period is marked by great illustrative literary works, unique four-square gardening techniques, striking architectural brilliance, and the emergence of new musical instruments like the Sitar and various new ragas. This period also witnessed the rise of Mughal paintings to their zenith. All these happened because most rulers were patrons of beauty and except Aurangazeb, others were secular and inclusive in their administrative approach.

History and Development of Mughal Paintings

Emerging from the Persian miniature paintings, Mughal painting has made its place as one of the most exquisite forms of Indian painting style. Developed in the courts of the Mughal emperors in the 16th to 18th century, it is mainly a miniature painting style that was used to draw book illustrations or as single album works. The autobiography of Babur and excellent literary works like Padshahnama (biography of emperor Shah Jahan) had extensive illustrations of Mughal paintings depicting the courtroom scenes, hunting scenes, etc. of the Mughal emperors. The striking feature of Mughal painting is its realistic portrayal of the lives of the Mughal emperors and the people of the empire. Although the primary paintings depicted heavy Persian and Islamic influence, later this painting style was embraced by Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist subjects also. The culmination of foreign Persian culture and Indian indigenous elements has given the required edge to Mughal paintings for reaching the zenith.

Main Subjects of the Paintings

As mentioned earlier, Mughal paintings are realistic depictions of the lives of the king and his kingsmen. They are pictorial depictions of the great battles fought, legendary and mythological stories, hunting scenes along with wildlife, royal lives and lifestyle, courtroom scenes, and lives of common people including market scenes, occupation, and agriculture. The popularity of these paintings reached far and near and they also ornamented courts of other kings and empires.

The Art: Evolution Under Different Rulers and Techniques

Mughal Painting had developed and evolved to different extents under the patronage of different Mughal rulers. It is a labour-intensive painting where many artists used to work on a single painting. Some were assigned to do the outlines while others had the responsibility of colouring. The paper used to be cut, sized, and polished to such a degree that the material should absorb no ink. The bright colours were derived from various natural sources like copper salts or cinnabar (viridian and red colour), and biological sources like insects for crimson and yellow colour were derived from cow’s urine which fed on mango leaves.

Here is the detailed chronology of events of the propagation of Mughal Painting along with the techniques and materials used at every stage of development.

Humayun – He was the first emperor who was introduced to Persian miniature painting when he was exiled in Tabriz. While returning, he brought two Persian painters, Abd-al-Samad and Mir Sayyid Ali with him and took over the workshop of his brother. The most important artwork during his time was Khamsa of Nizami which had 36 illustrated pages styled by various artists.

Akbar – Apart from being an efficient administrator, Emperor Akbar had great taste in art and literature. He himself took training in painting under the guidance of Abd-al-Samad and took extreme care in its propagation. Akbar set up painting workshops known as Karkhana, under the supervision of Abdus Samad. He also hired many painters in his court and looked after every minute detail and finishing of each painting. The notable works of Mughal painting during Akbar’s rule are Tutinama, (the Tales of a Parrot), Hamzanama, (the legend of Amir Hamza), Gulistan, (a masterpiece by Saadi Shirazi created at Fatehpur Sikri), Darabnama and Baharistan. Mughal paintings drawn during the times of Babur, Humayun, and Akbar had the most influence on the peacock blue colour.

Jahangir – Mughal paintings reached their zenith during the reign of Jahangir. During Jahangir’s rule, the British East India Company came to India and the Mughal court granted them permission to carry out business and trade in India, hence the Mughal painting style came in close contact with the European painting styles. This culmination of two cultures resulted in the evolution of painting techniques, the flattened multi-layered traditional picture perspective was changed into single point perspective, finer brush works came into practice and lighter colours were used. The Indian Red colour was mostly used in Mughal paintings during Jahangir’s rule.

Two distinct schools of painting also developed during Jahangir’s rule. They are the Rajput School of Painting and the Pahari or Kangra School of Painting. The Rajput school of painting was characterized by the depiction of human figures while the Pahari school of painting was characterized by the depiction of landscapes.

The notable painter under Jahangir’s patronage was Ustad Mansur. The most notable work was Jahangirnama, the autobiography of the emperor which had numerous illustrations depicting the life of Jahangir along with some unrealistic paintings like a fight between two spiders. Other important works included descriptions of natural beauties, flowers, and birds.

Shah Jahan – During Shah Jahan’s rule, the themes of Mughal paintings inside the courtrooms, monuments, and scriptures gradually became formal and rigid. On the other hand, the emperor had also commissioned paintings depicting gardens, lovers, and objects of great aesthetic pleasure for his collections. The most exquisite artwork during Shah Jahan’s reign was Padshanama, which had such intricate minute detailing that it is considered the finest Islamic manuscript of the royal collection. Such detailed work has given individuality to almost every character such that even the images of servants were drawn with utmost care. To draw the servants, the frontal view technique was used and to draw the image of the King and other dignitaries, rules of metamodelling were followed strictly which kept the formal nature of the paintings intact.

The Decline of Mughal Painting after Shah Jahan

The rule of Shah Jahan was the last limit of the development of Mughal Painting. After him, Aurangazeb, who was not a patron of any kind of art, ascended the throne. Moreover, the painting style got divided into different schools of art along with the extreme European influence in Indian art and culture brought by the British caused the decline of one of the exquisite artforms of India.

Present Scenario of the Art

Muhammad Shah, the Mughal ruler of the later Mughal Period had put some effort into the revival of Mughal Paintings as he was also an art lover like his great ancestors. Unfortunately, his efforts were short-lived due to the full-fledged operation of the mighty British East India Company during that time. The famous Dutch artist Rembrandt found his inspiration for miniatures from the Mughal paintings. Most of the original paintings are now preserved in museums in India as well as abroad.

At present, this amazing miniature painting style is still practiced by some artists in Lahore, Pakistan but it is only concentrated as copies of original paintings within the premises of the National School of Arts. But efforts are being made by artists of both India and Pakistan to revive the artform by creating the latest miniature paintings using the Mughal painting techniques. Many online platforms have also collaborated with them to promote their works and is such a platform that has come forward to support such artists. Mughal paintings are relics of the glorious past of the Indian subcontinent and one of the most liberal art forms that developed in this land. Although having its roots in Islam, Mughal paintings have been used to illustrate the great Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and its profound influence was found in Buddhist, Sikh, and Jain paintings also. It depicted the lives of the kings and their countrymen, gardens, birds, lovers, and all the beauties and the very soul of medieval India as a whole. Hence, we must come forward to revive traditional art and help in its propagation.


– Surangama Roy 
(Content Writer at


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