Shah Jahan’s portrait, emeralds, and the exotic at the Mughal court


Muhammad Abed, Shah Jahan holding an emerald, 1628 (dated regnal year 1), India, 21.4 x 9.5 cm (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Muhammad Abed, Shah Jahan holding an emerald, 1628 (dated regnal year 1), India, 21.4 x 9.5 cm (Victoria & Albert Museum)

The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan stands against a plain, mint-green background dressed in a gossamer-thin tunic, his head encircled by a golden halo. A bejeweled dagger is tucked into the sash tied around his waist, and he wears a treasury of gems set in his ears and on his turban, wrapped around his upper arms, circling his wrists, and suspended in the long strands of his necklaces. Amidst all of this finery, however, there is one item that stands out: the sizeable emerald Shah Jahan grasps in his left hand, secured in a gold setting and encircled by pearls. This, we might speculate, is the very emerald that he captured during an important military campaign that he led as a prince, one of the many treasures he plundered from the sultan of Bijapur in central India. On his return to the Mughal court, Shah Jahan presented the emerald to his father, the emperor Jahangir, as a show of his fealty

Muhammad Abed, Shah Jahan holding an emerald, 1628 (dated regnal year 1), India, 21.4 x 9.5 cm (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Muhammad Abed, Shah Jahan holding an emerald (detail), 1628 (dated regnal year 1), India, 21.4 x 9.5 cm (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Possession of the magnificent gem would have reverted to Shah Jahan once he took the throne, however, and it was apparently meaningful enough to him for it to be included in his accession portrait, made at the time he took the throne in 1628. This painting would have been made not only to mark the historic occasion but would have been one of many intended to capture different aspects of his Shah Jahan’s authority. The particular imagery of this portrait, for instance, would have been selected as to remind viewers of his already distinguished career on the battlefield.

Interestingly, of all the treasures Shah Jahan captured from Bijapur, including particularly large diamonds and rubies, it is notable that the emerald is featured in this portrait. Here, the emerald not only represents wealth, and Shah Jahan’s defeat of a rival, but also the Mughals’ desire for precious objects from around the world, and their ability to obtain such foreign luxuries on the global trade markets that were then expanding in many novel directions. 

Map with global trade routes, c. 1600

Map with global trade routes, c. 1600

For over three centuries between 1526 and 1858, the emperors of the Mughal dynasty ruled over a vast empire covering parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. These lands had long been linked to the world surrounding them and there had been travel and trade routes that connected eastward to China, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and westward to Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, and eastern Africa.

Over the course of the 1600s, however, European powers, or trading companies operating in their names, came to dominate the global trade system, taking over already well-worn routes and forging new ones. Spain and Portugal brought the Americas into the nexus of global trade, part of a larger enterprise which saw the establishment of European colonies throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas, through which European rule was imposed. As a result of these developments, imported goods such as porcelains from China, lacquered furniture from Japan, and printed and painted textiles from India could be found in many of the major urban centers being established across the Americas

Mansur, Turkey cock, c. 1612, opaque watercolour and gold on paper (Victoria & Albert Museum, London,)

Mansur, Turkey cock, c. 1612, opaque watercolour and gold on paper (Victoria & Albert Museum, London)

Moving in the opposite direction, various American rarities arrived with great fanfare at the courts of South Asia. A turkey (native to North America), for instance, was presented to Jahangir, having been transported to India by Portuguese traders. The emperor described the unusual bird in his memoirs, and asked that one of his court painters record its image. On a broader scale across the subcontinent, pineapples and chilies, tomatoes and potatoes were introduced into South Asian cuisine, tobacco became immediately popular, and gems such as emeralds soon found their way into the hands of wealthy collectors.

Emerald from the Muzo Mine, Colombia, Vasquez-Yacopí mining district, Boyacá District, Colombia (photo: Géry Parent, CCO 1.0)

Emerald from the Muzo Mine, Vasquez-Yacopí mining district, Boyacá District, Colombia (photo: Géry Parent, CCO 1.0)

Prior to the 1500s and the advent of the global trade involving the Americas, emeralds were only available in limited numbers from sources in Egypt, Austria, and Pakistan. However, sources in South America, particularly Colombia, provided gems of higher quality and in greater quantity, although prior to the European invasions, they only circulated within the immediate area of the mines. But as the Spanish colonists in Colombia started their own mining operations, emeralds were extracted in greater numbers and began to travel further afield, reaching Europe and Asia through a variety of sea and land networks.

Carew Spinel engraved with the titles of Jahangir, Shah Jahan and 'Alamgir (Aurangzeb), 17th century, Mughal Empire, India. 4 cm high, 2.3 cm wide (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Carew Spinel engraved with the titles of Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and ‘Alamgir (Aurangzeb), 17th century, Mughal Empire, India. 4 cm high, 2.3 cm wide (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The impact of this trade at the Mughal court is apparent in the expanded prominence of emeralds in writings, in paintings, and in surviving objects from the late sixteenth century on. A chronicler of the reign of Emperor Akbar, for instance, recorded emeralds as one of the major holdings in the Mughal treasury, along with the kind of gems that long been collected there, such as spinels, pearls, diamonds, sapphires, and rubies. 

Emerald cup, later 16th-17th century, India, 4.1 cm high, 252 carats (Al-Sabah Collection)

Emerald cup, later 16th–17th century, Mughal, India, 4.1 cm high, 252 carats
(Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait)

In the records of the reigns of Akbar’s son Jahangir and grandson Shah Jahan, there are frequent mentions of the presentation of emeralds or emerald jewelry, commissioned by the emperors as gifts to their sons and subordinates at key moments such as their birthdays, military deployments, or new governorships. In addition, European visitors to court mention that the emperors wore emerald jewelry and displayed emerald-encrusted objects during public ceremonies. In 1611, the Englishman John Jourdain describes a procession of elephants with trappings inlaid with emeralds, while in 1616, English ambassador Thomas Roe speaks of a cup, cover, and dish used by Jahangir, set with turquoises, rubies, and emeralds. In imperial portraits emerald jewelry became more noticeable as well, as demonstrated by the likeness of Shah Jahan discussed above, in which he wears emeralds mounted in necklaces and turban ornaments. 

Surviving emerald objects are also plentiful. While many stones were never cut and were stored loose, there are dozens of carved beads and pendants that would have been strung with pearls and rubies to create the necklaces that appear in so many Mughal paintings. There are also a number of flat plaques decorated with floral motifs that would have been set in armbands and bracelets. Finally, there is a set of small cups whose bowls are made from solid emeralds, along with a box made of emerald plaques set into a gold lid and base. 

Jahangir weighing Prince Khurram against gold and silver, Commemorating an event of 31 July 1607 for Khurram’s 15th birthday, c. 1615, India, Mughal, image: 30 x 19.6 cm (British Museum)

Left: Jahangir weighing Prince Khurram against gold and silver, Commemorating an event of 31 July 1607 for Khurram’s 15th birthday, c. 1615, India, Mughal, image: 30 x 19.6 cm; right: detail of the trays with emerald cups (© Trustees of the British Museum)

These might correspond to descriptions by European observers at Jahangir’s court of drinking cups made from single pieces of spinel, jade, and emerald, or to representations of such vessels in Jahangir-era paintings, such as the small green cup depicted on the tray of precious objects distributed at the time of a royal birthday. 

Emerald inscribed "Jahangir Shah-i Akbar Shah 1018 [1609–10 C.E.]," India, Mughal, 3.4 x 2.8 cm, 98.74 carats (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha)

Emerald inscribed “Jahangir Shah-i Akbar Shah 1018 [1609–10 C.E.],” India, Mughal, 3.4 x 2.8 cm, 98.74 carats (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha)

But most intriguing are three emeralds that were inscribed by Jahangir with his name and titles, for this indicates that the emerald itself was of special significance in the Mughal iconography of state. These three emeralds are impressive in size, with the largest, now in the Museum of the Islamic Art, Doha weighing in at 98.74 carats. All three include the phrase Jahangir shah-i Akbar shah (King Jahangir, son of King Akbar), and two include a date of 1018 in the Islamic calendar (converting to 1609–10 C.E.). The third also included a date but it is no longer legible. 

This practice can be contextualized by looking to other types of objects that the Mughals emperors inscribed, for they added their names to a range of precious items and historical objects that they collected for their personal treasuries. This includes rare and valuable porcelains acquired from China, and imperial manuscripts sourced from Iran. Most relevant to the example of the emeralds, though, would be other gemstones, specifically spinels (such as the Carew spinel above) and jades. On the one hand these stones were considered aesthetically striking and could be made into jewelry or precious objects to be used and displayed at court. These stones also had great monetary value and unblemished and high-quality specimens were hard to come by; like monarchs the world over, the Mughals sought them as an expression of their wealth. But in addition, these particular stones were desirable because they had special significance for the Mughal family line. Spinels come from a region in Afghanistan once ruled by the conqueror Timur, one of the great forebears of the Mughal line, and Timur and his descendants had also collected and inscribed them.

If this helps us to understand the Mughal practice of inscribing objects with names and titles, there is one aspect of the emeralds that diverges from the earlier examples: the fact that the emeralds did not have the same ancestral connection, having come from Colombia. Therefore, we imagine that the emeralds’ appeal was quite different in nature, and one avenue for understanding the value of emeralds to the Mughals is the extensive Persian-language literature on gems. One treatise, in circulation at the Mughal court, entitled Javahirnama (“Treatise on Precious Stones”) lists the numerous benefits of emeralds: it was considered an antidote for poisoning, it was believed to strengthen the heart, and it was thought to be useful against ailments of the stomach and liver as well as epilepsy. Therefore, the text states, the children of a ruler often wear emeralds. This may be why emeralds were gifted at significant court events, especially when princes were given new assignments.

However, a major part of the emeralds’ appeal was probably the fact that they came from an exotic and newly discovered locale, South America. That the Mughals were aware of this change in sources is attested by Jahangir’s comment in regard to the emerald depicted in the portrait of Shah Jahan, in which he notes:

it is from a new mine, [and] it is of extremely good color and valuable. Until now nothing like it has been seen.

This origin might have been emphasized by sellers to the court such as Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, a French dealer who made trading trips to India several times between the 1620s and 1640s. He was very well informed about the sources of his gems, even including in his memoirs a section titled “Concerning Coloured Stones and the Places where they Are Obtained” in which he includes a discussion of the American emerald mines. But the Mughals would equally have been aware of the European invasions of the continent, and the exploitation of its natural resources, from a variety of other sources. 

Depiction of a South American silver mine from Tarikh-i Hind Gharbi (History of the New World), early 17th century?, India (Chester Beatty Library)

Depiction of a South American silver mine from Tarikh-i Hind Gharbi (A History of the India of the West), early 17th century, India (Chester Beatty Library)

Primary among these is Tarikh-i Hind Gharbi (History of the India of the West), a text compiled in Turkish in 1583 at the Ottoman court in Istanbul based on second-hand Italian reports. Focusing on select aspects of the Italian sources, the text lays out the key events in the Spanish conquests of the continents, and discusses the history of each area they captured, including descriptions of the customs of its people, its natural resources, and its topographical features. It specifically mentions, for instance, Spanish finds of impressively large emeralds and the discovery of the Muzo mine in Colombia. A Persian-language version of chapter three of this text, called Tarjuma-yi Tarikh-i Yenigi Dunya (Translation of the History of the New World) and tentatively attributed to South Asia in the early 1600s, could be evidence for the circulation of this kind of information during the reigns of Jahangir and Shah Jahan.

This manuscript copy includes paintings of unusual animals from the new continent, as well as images of its peoples, that would have provided a contextual setting for the source of the emeralds. While some information is factual, there are also many misguided discussions of life in South America, particularly the beliefs and customs of the people of different regions. Some of these discussions were filtered through the lens of what was familiar to the translator and illustrator of the text, for instance in a painting of a silver mine that shows the workers in the style of clothing prevalent in the Mughal lands.

Chitarman , Shah Jahan on a Terrace, Folio from the Shah Jahan Album, 1627–28, Mughal, ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, attributed to India, 38.9 x 25.7 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Shah Jahan is shown wearing jewelry with emeralds and other gemstones, such as spinels and pearls. Chitarman, “Shah Jahan on a Terrace” (detail), folio from the Shah Jahan Album, 1627–28, Mughal, ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, attributed to India, 38.9 x 25.7 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

However South America, its people and its products were for the most part characterized as unimaginably foreign, if appealing in their foreign-ness. In this context, the emeralds that arrived from such conceptually and physically distant lands would have been exciting acquisitions, linked with the Mughals’ desire to possess objects from around the world. Emeralds symbolized the exotic and the rare, and their relatively limited availability made them all the more precious, the perfect emblem to encapsulate the wealth and aspirations of Shah Jahan as he embarked on his rule as emperor.

Cite this page as: Dr. Marika Sardar, "Shah Jahan’s portrait, emeralds, and the exotic at the Mughal court," in Smarthistory, October 7, 2022, accessed December 1, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/shah-jahan-portrait-emeralds-exotic-mughal-court/.