India or Iran
Mughal, 17th-18th century CE
Materials and technique
Cast, welded and riveted iron; cut-out decoration
Height 102 cm
This 'alam (standard), imposing in appearance and size, is one of the most sophisticated standards in the James Allan classification. This four-branched type, in the shape of successive almonds of increasing dimensions, with inscriptions on an extensive arabesque openwork background, is reportedly of Safavid Iranian origin, particularly from Ispahan. In his study, Allan lists a few, only two of which are dated: one 1069 H/1658-59 CE and the other 1117 H/1705 CE. This 'alam could be from South India, from one of the Shia kingdoms of the Deccan which were established following the weakening of the Bahmanid dynasty (1347-1527 CE) between the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century. Indeed, the detailed nature of the openworked metal, mixing arabesque and calligraphic designs, is an indication of the close links these kingdoms maintained with Shia Safavid Iran. Many artists, men of letters and religious personalities from the Iranian world settled in that part of India. Only an in-depth study of the different inscriptions on this standard, which seem to be in thuluth style could perhaps confirm the origin of this piece. Mark Zebrowski highlights certain features of the thuluth style which are particular to that region, as well as the absence of the nasta'liq, widely used in Safavid Iran, and some examples of which are known in northern India. A standard identified by Allan blends these two writing styles. The 'alams are represented on a ceramic mosaic piece, dated 1611 CE, in the royal Shia tomb, the Badshahi 'ashurkhana, built between 1593 CE and 1596 CE by Muhammad Quli in Hyderabad. No standard of this type seems to have appeared during that period, so the standard presented here might date back to the second half of the seventeenth or beginning of the eighteenth century, like those mentioned by Allan. The commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn, son of 'Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, who died in the Battle of Karbala, on 10 Muharram 680 CE, was the major milestone for Shiism and brought about several important events. In the Deccan, since the end of the sixteenth century, during the month of Muharram, poems in honour of the Shia martyrs, the marsiyas, were recited in assemblies that met at specific venues, the 'ashurkhanas. This is where unused standards were also stored. During the processions, they were carried with a representation of Husayn’s cenotaph, the tabut, as well as an image of Buraq, the white, winged mount of the Prophet, and a candelabrum of incense. At the end of the procession, the tabut was buried or immersed in a river, according to Hindu tradition where the image of the goddess Durga was thrown into a river.
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