Arts of the Book: Illustrated Texts, Miniatures
Babur’s Men Pursuing The Inhabitants Of Bilah Across The River Indus
Mughal, circa 1589 CE
Materials and technique
Ink, opaque watercolour, silver and gold on paper
26.5 x 15.7 cm
This vibrantly colourful, action-filled painting depicts a battle recounted in the emperor Babur’s (r. 1526-30 CE) memoirs, the Baburnama. Babur spent the first years of the sixteenth century unsuccessfully fighting the Uzbeks in Central Asia (Uzbekistan) until he decided to move into Afghanistan, where he was able to take control of Kabul and found the Mughal dynasty. This scene illustrates an episode in March 1505 CE, when Babur and his men reached the Indus River south of Peshawar, arriving at the town of Bilah. Some of the townspeople managed to escape to a small island across the river, but Babur’s army jumped into the water and pursued them. The painting brings to life the intense chaos of the event through the multitude of animated figures shown attempting to escape in boats while dodging arrows shot by Babur’s army. A fortress shown at the top of the page, presumably situated in the distance, might represent the town of Bilah. Rushing water, probably once rendered in silver, now fills the interstices of the scene in lined waves of grey and white. Babur’s men are emphasized by their larger size, the centrality of their location and the natural highlight provided by the light, beige coloured earth under their feet. This dynamic painting, dominating the two blocks of text referring to the battle in Persian (translated from the Chagatai Turkish of Babur’s original memoirs), belongs to a double-page illustration, the right-hand side of which is preserved at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Canby has observed that the convention of using differently sized figures to suggest spatial recession might have come from European models (Canby 1998, p. 115).
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