Shikar:  Royal Hunts of the Mughal Empire.  In Miniature

Shah Jahan introduced wearing green as camouflage.

by Brooke Chilvers

Copenhagen is home to several wonderful smaller museums that started as the private collections of wealthy, art-obsessed businessmen who then donated their treasures to the State of Denmark or City of Copenhagen. The Glyptotek, for example, began as the private sculpture collection of the son of the founder of Carlsberg Breweries. The splendid Hirschsprung collection of Danish art was the result of a single family’s tobacco fortune. 

And the eclectic David Collection is at home in the tasteful townhouse of Danish lawyer and businessman C.L. David, who died in 1960. Filled with the finest 18th century European furnishings, porcelain, and decorative art, and an entire floor devoted to early modern Danish art, its treasures also include a brilliantly displayed body of Islamic art, from ceramics and jewelry to weapons and miniature painting, from the Arab, Persian, Indian, and Ottoman Turkish cultures.

Akbar pierces the lioness with his shamshir shikargar.

Before I knew it, I was hauling their two-kilo book, Fighting, Hunting, Impressing—Arms and Armour from the Islamic World 1500–1850, in my carry-on luggage, and on the road to studying the imagery of hunting in Mughal art.  

Miniature paintings first appeared around 1000 A.D.; the oldest ones still extant date from the 1200s.  Some of the most familiar images are princes on horseback, hunting with falcons. Three of the so-called Great Mughal emperors were especially great hunters:  Akbar (1542–1605), Jahangir (1569–1627), and Shah Jahan (1592–1666).

The list of game species they would have pursued in their ever-expanding empire, which originated in Afghanistan and spread across the northern Indian subcontinent, was grand:  Blackbuck, nilgai, markhor, ibex, wild ass, Chinkara gazelle, chital, sambar, and other deer species, as well as rhinoceros, lion, tiger, and leopard.  Capturing and training wild elephants and leopards was also part of the game.  

A miniature from Akbar’s Akbarnama shows the emperor’s 1561 encounter with lions on his return from Malwa to Agra.  He is piercing the charging lioness with a single stroke of his shamshir shikargar, or long-bladed hunting sword, proving yet again that he is fearless and invincible. Successful hunts, especially of lion, were seen as auspicious omens before battle, as well as proof of the emperor’s good fortune and ability to overcome evil.

Captured wild cheetah were trained to hunt.

Royal hunting was as much about diplomacy and politics as it was sport, venison, and trophies.  For Akbar, it provided an excuse to leave Agra.  Once, while supposedly on elephant shikar in the jungles of Malwa, he was actually checking out its rebellious governor. 

Akbar was given his first cheetah in 1555, and captured his first one five years later.  He would eventually train more than 1,000 cheetahs to chase blackbuck and hare.  In fact, Akbar gave a title to his most favored cheetah, Chitr Najan, for jumping across a 25-foot wide crevasse in pursuit of her prey, and promenaded his noble cat around in her own carriage accompanied by drumrolls.  Once, to protect his unborn son struggling in the womb, he swore a vow never again to hunt with cheetah on a Friday.  And he never did.