About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    Zahir and Batin
The Picture Puzzles of Lahore

    The seventeenth century is regarded as the golden age of Mughal rule on the Indian subcontinent. Mughal painting and architecture drew on existing Islamic traditions, but augmented these by using elements that had seldom been seen before in Islamic art. In scarcely any other period in Islamic history have people adopted such a creative and playful approach to the prohibition of images.

    Islam’s supposed hostility towards images is one of the great narratives of art history, regardless of whether this history is written by authors from a Christian or a Muslim cultural background. As for the latter, it is not always possible to distinguish whether the animosity towards images is understood descriptively or normatively: whether it is intended to describe the reality of Islamic art, or whether it is just a postulate, a legal prescription. Full enforcement of the ban on images can only be verified for a few periods and in a few places, and the emergence of photography and new media have rendered it completely unenforceable.

    As a result of this, however, there is an increased desire, or normative pressure, to cling to the narrative of the imagelessness of Islam. It is therefore part of the core ideology of Islamic fundamentalist movements. The art-historical and political consequences of this ideology are devastating, as demonstrated by the destruction of the Buddha statues of Bamyan by the Taliban in March 2001.

    Standardised perspective

    For Western art historical writing on Islam, the Islamic ban on imagery, however inconsistently it has been applied, remains a central feature that helps to distinguish the mainstream of Islamic from the mainstream of Christian art. One would not wish to assert that this distinction is fundamentally wrong; but it is, shall we say, trivial, and impedes differentiated description and the perception of deeper associations. The Western fixation on the lack of images in Islamic art clouds the unbiased view, thus performing the same function as Islamic fundamentalist wishful thinking. The result is the enforced standardisation of our perspective: the reduction of seeing and understanding to that which we have always seen and understood.

    A further aspect of the problem of distinguishing between Christian versus Islamic, image-friendly and image-hostile art, culture and religion, is the question of whether we understand ‘Islamic’ and ‘Christian’ in the narrower sense of religious significance or the wider sense of cultural significance. If the first, then miniature painting, which has always subverted the prohibition of images, cannot in fact refute the established notion of Islam’s hostility towards them. The greatest examples of miniature painting in the Islamic world were created in contexts that do not have Islam as their focus; rather, they illustrate myths, legends and chronicles that are primarily non-religious in nature, though Islam does have a function in these other contexts or is incorporated into them, like the illustrated editions of the Shahnameh. On the other hand, it is highly unusual to find miniature paintings in religious works from the Islamic world, like the illustrated Ottoman version of the biography of the Prophet (Siyer-i Nebi) from the year 1595, which can be found today in the museum of the Topkapi Palace.

    The further we venture into the realm of the religious – in the literal sense – art of Islam, the more limited the range of what may be figuratively represented becomes, and the more precisely the dictum of Islam’s hostility towards images seems to apply. This is especially true if we take as our starting point art that is explicitly public. Miniature painting, which had a courtly-representative function, was not public – i.e. accessible to anyone who wished to see it – and tolerance of images apparently ended at the gates of the mosque. Insofar as there have ever been figurative depictions in mosques, the motifs are taken from nature, as in the famous mosaics in the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus or the depiction of flowers in Mughal mosques. Another motif that could be portrayed in mosques is architecture itself, as also in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Individual animal motifs are also occasionally found in religious architecture, for example the relief of a lion on the portal of the mosque of Diyarbakir in Turkey: ‘Here, however, they are always incidental and can in no way compete with other forms of architectural decoration.’ The most unusual examples of figurative representation in Islamic religious architecture are suns and moons with human faces, found in Central Asia – the sun-face positioned between two images of the simorgh, a mythical bird, on the pishtaq, or gateway, of the Nadir Divan-Beghi Medressa in Bukhara, for example – or the tiger in the Sher-Dor Madrasa in Samarkand that bears a face on its back.

    An artistic syncretism with the pre-Islamic religions of Central Asia becomes apparent here, a discreet, transformed version of which we also find in Lahore.

    Thus, the dialectic of the prohibition of images on the one hand and the yearning for imagery on the other led muslims to find solutions which so far have been only inadequately appreciated, or else overlooked entirely. This is particularly true with regard to the golden age of the Mughal dynasty on the Indian subcontinent in the seventeenth century.

    Syncretism and courtly art

    The epitome of this golden age is generally considered to be the Taj Mahal in Agra, the mausoleum for Mumtaz Mahal (Arjumand Banu), wife of the fifth ruler of the Mughal dynasty (Shah Jahan, 1592–1666), who died in childbirth at the age of thirty-eight. Anyone studying this period soon encounters the Mughals’ love of images of all kinds. The Mughal rulers continued the interest in miniature painting they inherited from the Mongols and Iranian tradition, but in many ways they far transcended it.

    This was made possible by a number of sociopolitical factors. As rulers of a territory with a very wide variety of religious traditions, the Mughals cultivated a tolerant attitude towards other religions: partly out of inclination, partly because of political considerations. In particular, Akbar (1556–1605) and his great-grandson Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, promoted a syncretic philosophy. Akbar was said to have founded his own court religion under the name ‘Din-i Ilahi’ (The Religion of God), which, as far as we are able to reconstruct it, blended Muslim, Hindu and Zoroastrian traditions. Dara Shikoh’s text Majma al-Bahrain has survived, an attempt to synthesise (Sufi) Islam and Hinduism; and mystic traditions played a significant role in the Mughal worldview. Another factor was the extension of contacts with the European maritime powers in India, with their ambassadors and missionaries. As in the Ottoman Empire, the contemporary European fashion for painting also caught on in Mughal cultural centres. Unlike in the Ottoman Empire, we do not know of any European painters who were themselves active at the Mughal court, but we do know of individual images, motifs and techniques that found their way to the Indian subcontinent, which were obviously admired by the Mughal rulers and received and adopted by artists.

    As undisputed as these artistic contacts are, it is also clear that this reception of European painting and the rise of Mughal painting in general was predominantly a court phenomenon in which the majority of the population had no part. ‘For the privileged few’ was the apposite title of an exhibition of Islamic miniatures at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in 2007. In Europe, on the other hand, the abundant presence of painting in churches and the love of the growing middle classes for this art form had, at the latest since the Renaissance, resulted in large sections of the population becoming familiar with pictures. If we compare the two different image cultures, one could speak of an elite and a non-elite, an esoteric and an exoteric approach to imagery. The Mughal court culture, as elite-esoteric as it was, was nonetheless so strongly permeated by imagery and influenced by the fascination with images that many traces and aspects of this fascination can also be found in sacred, and thus publicly accessible, works of the Mughal period – albeit, as we shall see, often in abstracted, veiled and enigmatic form.

    The tiled walls of the Lahore Fort with their portrayals of elephants will serve as one example. These portrayals transcend the realm of the court insofar as they decorate the outer wall of the fort. However, only those who had got close enough to the fort itself, which was protected by wide trenches, could really have recognised the elephants. The ability to see the motifs in detail and recognise them was thus an indication of proximity to the court circle, and a mark of distinction. As we will see below, this is similarly true of the paintings in the Mughal mosques. Only those who were in the know and part of the esoteric knowledge society of the Mughal court could fully comprehend their meaning.

    In other, individual cases, too, the Mughals were prepared to blur the boundary between courtly and public handling of imagery – and the depiction of living creatures and people in particular. We find an astonishing example in the Diwan-i Amm (Hall of Audience) in the Red Fort in Delhi, with a pietra dura panel depicting Orpheus singing to the beasts. Admittedly it must be noted that, despite its name, the Diwan-i Amm, like the palace as a whole, was accessible only to a select few, such as foreign ambassadors.

    Also worthy of note is a coin embossed during Jahangir’s rule with the sovereign’s head, although one would have to refer to numismatics to establish how widely such coins were actually circulated. In the image on the coin, the ruler has a goblet in his hand that is hardly likely to have contained water. The presence of the wine glass is explained not by our knowledge that Jahangir was very fond of drinking, but rather when we consider that wine, as a spiritual drink, can likewise be a symbol of the intoxication of God’s love, as in the famous Wine Ode by the Arab Sufi poet Ibn al-Farid (1181–1235), or in the Persian poems of Hafiz Shirazi.

    In this essay I will demonstrate, with reference to the Wazir Khan and Dai Anga mosques in Lahore, the creative way in which the Mughals extended the narrow boundaries, drawn by traditional understanding, for dealing with imagery and illustration, to include the realm of sacred architecture that was open to the public – in particular, mosques and mausoleums.

    Images in mosques

    The most striking visual element of Mughal architecture is the flower motif. ‘Flower and plant decoration took the place of the previously favoured “typical Islamic” geometrical patterns.’ These motifs are, for the most part, executed in three variations: the pietra dura technique, i.e. inlay work, often using precious stones; al fresco painting on plastered walls (like the frescoes in the Wazir Khan Mosque represented here); and as faience mosaic using glazed clay tiles. The costly pietra dura technique was restricted – at least in Lahore – to palace architecture and a few carefully-selected funerary monuments: it is not found in the city’s mosques. The Dai Anga Mosque has inlayed tilework, while the Wazir Khan Mosque is decorated with painted frescoes. The illustrations are sometimes reminiscent of still-lifes (this is especially true of the decoration on the first floor of the entry vestibule). In addition to flowers we can also make out fruit, bottles and cups, often depicted very sketchily. Although the character of the flower motifs is inspired by nature and often based on European models, they are in fact abstractions and, in some cases, flowers of the imagination. This is worth noting, as less abstract depictions of the same motifs were also being circulated at the Mughal court during the same period, for example the leaves and miniatures painted by Ustad Mansur, which did indeed aspire to be mimetic, replicating nature with almost scientific precision.

    The flower and vase motifs accessible to a widerpublic in the mosques and mausoleums form a common thread, a significant link to the esoteric aesthetics – accessible only to an elite – of palace architecture and its decorative elements. Unlike depictions of animals and people, for example, which belong to the realm of the court, the flower motif is found equally in both spheres, thereby symbolising the continuity of sovereignty over both the worldly and the religious sphere. It succeeds because the flower motifs can be read on both levels: as figurative-mimetic and as decorative-ornamental. This is also why the motif of the bouquet of flowers in a vase is so well-suited to be a general symbol of Mughal rule: ‘The image of the garden and its flowers was the main metaphor of Shah Jahan’s imperial symbolism.’ It is an aesthetic reflection of the continuity of this rule through the various spheres of the public and non-public realms. It becomes apparent that the flower (vase) motif can also fulfil other functions.

    The Wazir Khan Mosque

    The most unusual depictions of flower vases in Mughal architecture, and thus de facto in the whole Islamic world, are to be found in the Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore. According to the inscriptions in Persian and Arabic on the main portal, the mosque was built in 1634–163514 by the man after whom it was named, Nawab Hakim Ilm ud-Din Wazir Khan, who was made governor of the Punjab by Shah Jahan in 1631. The mosque was thus built during the golden age of Mughal architecture. The mausoleum of Jahangir, Shah Jahan’s father, was being built at the same time in Shahdara near Lahore (1628–1638), and the seventeen-year works on the Taj Mahal began in 1632. The Wazir Khan Mosque was built inside the city walls, in the middle of Lahore’s market district, around the grave of the Sufi Sheikh Sayyad Muhammad Ishaq Gazruni (d. 1348), which can still be seen today in the courtyard of the mosque.

    The eye is already captivated from the outside by the main portal of the mosque with its unusually diverse and variegated colours. When the visitor, having passed through the gateway and crossed the courtyard of the mosque, finally enters the prayer room, the impression of abundance, vitality and colour reaches a crescendo. There can scarcely be another work of Islamic sacred architecture that boasts such a kaleidoscopic variety of colour, both inside and out, as the Wazir Khan Mosque. All the different colours and coloured surfaces seem to animate the architecture, simultaneously bewildering the observer, who finds it hard to decide which surface, which element, his eye should rest upon, which detail should be the object of his contemplation.

    For however harmonious an overall impression they make, the different colours, motifs and calligraphies all demand individual attention. Thus the emphasis seems to be on distinct elements rather than on the ensemble. At the same time, an interplay and a tension are created between the separate design elements and the overall effect (which, of course, the building does nonetheless have) that are not found in the more formal decoration of the majority of other Islamic (and Mughal) sacred buildings.

    Islamic Baroque?

    On the basis of this impression, we could be talking about an Islamic Baroque – which would, incidentally, be chronologically parallel to this style in Europe. This baroque character is evoked by the multitude of colours and forms, by the opulence and attention to detail of the material presented, by the dynamics and vitality of the overall effect, as well as by the fact that, however often we look at it and however familiar we think we are with the sight, we are constantly discovering new things and learning to see familiar things in a new way.

    In the prayer room of the mosque, another aspect comes to the fore. The stark contrast with the brightness of the mosque courtyard and the fact that the prayer room as a whole never gets enough sunlight at any time of day mean that the almost incomprehensible profusion of ornamental, calligraphic and illustrative-painterly decoration evokes an atmosphere of mystery, of solemnity, of holiness, and thus of the interior, esoteric (Arabic: batin) in contrast to the external, exoteric, visible (Arabic: zahir).

    Wazir Khan thereby conveys the impression, far more than other mosques, that it is in fact a shrine – that it is a temple. To the modern observer, the pictorial worlds already seem mysterious because they are so unexpected, and because one’s ability to absorb and interpret them is only fragmentary, even if one is conversant with Islamic culture.

    We may, however, assume that there are many aspects of the mosque that the Mughals’ uninitiated contemporaries were also unable to interpret, or of which they too had only a fragmentary understanding. The observation made about the calligraphy in the Taj Mahal thus similarly holds true for the paintings in the Wazir Khan Mosque: ‘These inscriptions are aesthetically attractive, but not easily readable: some are placed in obscure areas, others are too high and too far away to be read, and most are so intricately composed that the ordinary visitor would not be able to decipher them.’

    Yet whereas researchers have certainly shown considerable interest in individual calligraphic inscriptions, including those in the Wazir Khan Mosque, the majority of authors and observers perceive depictions of plants and vases as purely ornamental, i.e. in terms of their relationship – which certainly also exists – with the overall decoration, but not as individually interpretable, explorable images.

    Detailed consideration

    However, an essay by Kamil Khan Mumtaz, published in 1992 in the Lahore Museum Bulletin, demonstrates how fruitful a detailed consideration of individual images actually is. The author raises the obvious question of what is depicted in one of the framed frescoes, in a niche in the prayer room. In order to decipher the puzzle, the author turns to the sura al-Fatha, which adorns the entrance to the prayer room; he also refers to the biography of the Prophet, and what the tradition has to say about the circumstances in which this sura was revealed. He thus arrives at the conjecture that the black tufts over the boughs of the tree depict the hair Mohammed shaved off in Hudaybiyah and threw over the acacia after failing in his attempt to make a pilgrimage to Mecca with his followers, according to the story as told in Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Prophet.

    As reasonable as this interpretation may be from a religious standpoint, it does raise a number of questions. The sura that frames the entrance to the prayer room is not directly linked with the picture in a way that is apparent to any observer. The chain of association from the sura to the picture can only work via a bridge, namely the biography of the Prophet. Even if we can assume that the biography of the Prophet was known to religious scholars in seventeenth-century Lahore, such an association can only be established if either similar pictures were commonly used to illustrate the biography, or the pictures were explained to visitors (selected visitors, at least). Neither is likely, and in any case one would want to know who thought up an iconographic programme so badly in need of elucidation, and why. However, as Kamil Khan Mumtaz writes, it is unfortunately not even possible to say with certainty who the architect of the Wazir Khan Mosque was.

    In view of the questions raised by Mumtaz’ interpretation, let us here attempt to identify a reading that is less filled with conjecture – one that assumes we are dealing with a more or less mimetic representation. What can we recognise if we contemplate this picture without background religious knowledge? What aspect of reality might be portrayed here?

    A realistic-mimetic reading of the picture reveals itself if we assume that living creatures (plants excepted) were not, as a rule, depicted in mosques or other religious contexts. They are not shown in this picture either, in a realistic sense. They are, however, suggested.

    Let us start with a minor detail. Are the white swirls at the top of the picture really clouds, as Mumtaz says? They could just as well be birds. The fact that it was not actually permitted to portray birds, and that they are not portrayed realistically, does not make it impossible that birds are what is intended – they are just not explicitly there. The bird association also seems likely because in less compromising contexts they are often depicted in the same location in the picture, whereas clouds seldom are. This is true, for example, not only of Ustad Mansur’s miniature paintings at the Mughal court but also of flower vase motifs from the temporal and geographical context of the Wazir Khan Mosque. Still visible today at the entrance to the Shalimar Gardens in Lahore is a door featuring a similar motif. Instead of swirls, birds are portrayed here quite clearly, which obviously was not considered problematic in the non-religious context of the gardens.

    But what does it mean if birds are being suggested here rather than clouds depicted (whereby every observer must make up his own mind about this)? Presumably it would be an expression of nothing more than what is conveyed by every form of mimesis, namely: delight in what exists in the world, too, rather than exclusive reference to the world beyond – the assumption all too sweepingly and simplistically made of Islamic culture.

    In a similar way, the courtly painting of Ustad Mansur expresses, above all, enthusiasm for that which exists in the world, its variety and beauty. In the prayer room of the Wazir Khan Mosque, the abstract picture of the birds would at least suggest this feeling – or, to be more precise, this way of looking at the world, with the emphasis on this world rather than the next. It should also be mentioned in this context that the Wazir Khan Mosque is and has always been a place where the doves of Lahore nest and congregate, and that for the people of Lahore the image of the mosque is characterised by the doves that circle its minarets and kiosks.

    Given that in Biblical tradition (as incorporated into both Christianity and Islam) the dove was ascribed a religious dimension, we come full circle, and the secular reality of mortal birds simultaneously introduces the possibility of reinterpreting them in the context of a spiritual worldview.

    But what could the Prophet’s swatches of hair (in Kamil Khan Mumtaz’ interpretation) represent, if we were ignorant of the religious background and had to rethink them as mimetic depictions? Here too comparison with other material provides the key. There is a surviving picture by Ustad Mansur dated 1610, only thirty years before the construction of the Wazir Khan Mosque. The picture shows squirrels fleeing a hunter and seeking refuge up a tree. Their long, dark tails – which are also depicted larger than life – are strongly reminiscent of the swatches of hair in the picture in the Wazir Khan Mosque. Or, to put it another way, the swatches of hair look like abstract depictions of squirrels.

    Let me be quite clear: I consider the spiritual interpretation of the picture put forward by Kamil Khan Mumtaz to be perfectly plausible. But I would like to point out that it could be interpreted just as well in a realistic-mimetic way, if this is what the observer chooses to do. This observation is an important one, because the other motifs in the Wazir Khan Mosque depicting flowers in vases are usually only read on the mimetic level – as if they represented nothing more than flowers, which are then interpreted, according to established theory (one might also say: cliché), as symbols of the Garden of Paradise. This excludes from the outset any other interpretative possibility, and constrains the observer’s imagination and associative pleasure within perceived Islamic norms.

    Framed images

    Furthermore, analysis of this picture raises the question of whether there is a relationship between it and other pictures that are similarly positioned (all in all there are six of those framed pictures in the prayer hall), and if so, what this relationship might be. Unlike the remaining wall surface and the other frescoes, all these pictures sit in small niches about fifteen centimetres deep. This creates the impression of a frame and is immediately reminiscent of pictures from the Western tradition. The six niches or frames, which must have been included in the architectural plans from the very beginning are clearly intended to make the individual picture stand out, and to emphasise its individual character – or the individual character of what it represents – much as the frame around a painting does in the Western tradition. It therefore does not seem completely unreasonable to assume that this indicates a Western influence. There are six of these ‘framed’ pictures, in landscape format, in the passageways leading to the prayer chamber.

    This method of using a recess to create a frame is something we also encounter in the frescoes on the side walls of the entry portal. Here the framed pictures are positioned one above the other, creating a similar impression to paintings hung above one another in Baroque European churches, or a very full gallery where the walls are covered in paintings. One striking effect of the recessive positioning is that the edges of the paintings often lie in shadow. If this effect is intentional – and in an architectural masterpiece like this we can assume that all the effects are intentional – we may interpret that intention as being that the pictures should never all be visible simultaneously or in their entirety. The shadow cast by the recess, which varies according to the position of the sun, is like a veil that partially conceals, as it might a woman’s face. At the same time, this veiling points to a secret that lies beneath it, and – as for example with the veil of the goddess Isis in Egyptian and Hellenistic mythology – to something sacred that must be concealed. In atmospheric terms we have already been made aware of this in the half-dark or, to be more precise, the light/dark prayer chamber. This chiaroscuro, here an effect not in a painting but produced on the painting by a particular incidence of light (and therefore by architectonic lighting design), again reminds us of similar (though painted) effects in Baroque art. Finally, it should be noted that, with these exceptions, recessed paintings of this kind are found only in the famous Shish Mahal, or Hall of Mirrors, in the Lahore Fort.

    Plants or animals: the picture puzzles

    Let us take a closer look at the ‘framed’ picture on the wall opposite the one analysed by Kamil Khan Mumtaz. There is a reflective similarity in that they share the same dark red background. What is striking is that these two pictures contain neither flower nor vase motifs. Instead, they portray trees. In the picture opposite the one with the ‘hair of the Prophet’ we see not one tree but four. Even if we assume that the cypresses represent the Insan al-Kamil – the perfect man, personified by the idealised Prophet Mohammed – the spiritual meaning is hard to decipher.

    If, instead, we stick to what it actually looks like, perhaps we can see something else in the picture. With a little imagination, instead of four trees and a couple of flowers we may be able to make out, on the left-hand-side, in place of the tree’s strangely-shaped crown, the abstract head of a horse (or similar hoofed creature).

    The idea that we might be able to see a horse’s head in the crown of a tree is not as absurd as it at first appears. There is no reason why the fact that animals and people are not supposed to be depicted in sacred buildings should prevent us from pursuing this concept – because all it is is a concept! At the initial, superficial level, what we see is indeed four trees and their foliage. Thus it would not be the picture that violated the ban on images, merely the observer’s imagination. We can, however, argue that the more we have studied and engaged with the pictures in the Wazir Khan Mosque, the more our imagination has already been encouraged to see more than is visible on a superficial level. Didn’t we believe we had found a representation of the hair of the Prophet – an attribution that, plausible though it may be, requires a degree of imagination and associative zeal? Likewise, we were also able to find squirrels and birds in the frescoes.

    The following is also an indication that these pictures contain not just flora but fauna as well. If we examine them more closely, we can establish that what are superficially portrayed as flowers are by no means naturalistic, and that if they were intended to be naturalistic, they would be badly painted. The fact that they are not naturalistic does not, of course, mean that they are merely intended as symbols – of the flowers of Paradise, for example. Rather, the majority of these motifs are patterns which, like modern painting styles such as Cubism, prompt the observer to reassemble the abstractions, distortions and perspective displacements to create familiar forms, i.e.: to recognise and mentally construct things that are by no means clearly portrayed.

    Of course, we run the risk of anachronism in applying our gaze, schooled in modern art, to a completely different context. Yet as soon as we tentatively assume that we may indeed be dealing with this kind of aesthetic, the picture world of the Wazir Khan Mosque reveals itself in a new, and better, way. We are now able to recognise what were previously freestanding, floating flowers, artistically meaningless, mere space-fillers, as butterflies. However, several flowers with strikingly large pistils immediately suggest bees – and perhaps such a motif is intended to depict both: bees and pistils. We encounter similar phenomena outside the Wazir Khan Mosque as well. In the passageway leading to the cenotaph of Jahangir in Shahdara, Lahore, the two handles of a vase culminate in swans’ heads. In another picture it seems we can discern flying swans.

    Anyone is free to deny themselves such associations, as people will do who reject the portrayal of animate nature in the sacred buildings of Islam on religious grounds, or for other reasons. However, those who dare to transcend this kind of self-censorship, prejudice, or prohibition on thinking can read such elements into the paintings. And it is precisely this, namely the ambiguity of visible and invisible, or – to embrace two key concepts of Islamic theology – the interplay of zahir and batin (apparent and hidden meaning), that seems to be a central function of this type of painting.

    Those who choose not to engage with this approach will see a reference to a Paradise depicted as stiff and lifeless. Those who do choose to engage with it have already, the moment they entered the prayer chamber, arrived in a shimmering, living Paradise full of fluttering butterflies and buzzing bees. A famous quotation from the Prophet’s cousin Ali, patriarch of the Shi’a, says: ‘People are asleep, and when they die, they awaken.’ The entry into the prayer chamber as if into a paradisiacal Heaven on Earth is an awakening of the liveliness and productive imagination of our perception, which we could describe as having been asleep. Another striking, unnatural trait of certain flowers or blossoms in the frescoes should also be mentioned, at least in passing. Many of them feature a peculiar, unnatural rotation that is reminiscent of a swastika. To name just one of many possible examples, we also find a swastika motif in the tiling at the Tomb of Akbar in Sikandra. We also see a three-armed variant in the ornamentation of the Maryam Zamani Mosque in Lahore.

    In all these instances we could assume that the motif, whether in the ornamentation or the rotation of the flowers, is a coincidence: but coincidence is less likely here than intention. If we take the symbolic content of the painting in the Wazir Khan Mosque seriously and assume, for example, as most interpreters do, that the cypresses are symbols of the Insan al-Kamil, it seems reasonable to see swastika-shaped flowers, which do not exist in natura, as a discreet reference to Hindu traditions, thereby including them in the iconographic programme of the Wazir Khan Mosque. In view of the syncretism mentioned above and the religious tolerance of many Mughal rulers, such an interpretation appears highly likely. Both Muslim and Hindu astrologers were employed at the Mughal court, and Hindu notables had a significant role in the governance of state. It would be strange if the religious plurality that characterised Mughal rule, and which was also mirrored in the multi-faith composition of the population, had left no traces in the religious architecture – even if research on the Wazir Khan Mosque makes no mention of it, and perspectives like these may be unwelcome from a Pakistani-Muslim standpoint. Traces of this syncretism are, however, more subtle than in the Sher-Dor Madrassa in Samarkand (mentioned above), for example, where the calligraphic lettering ‘Allah’ clearly takes the form of a swastika.

    The ambiguity of the pictures

    However, even if one admits that intimations of living Nature can indeed be found in the Wazir Khan Mosque, interpreting the ‘framed’ picture (opposite the one with the hair of the Prophet) as a tree with a horse’s head may still seem audacious. Yet I believe that this impression is unlikely to be a coincidence. We could only consider the picture’s effect to be unintentional if the other pictures did not also suggest a certain degree of animation; if the remaining iconographic programme ruled out any ambiguity. However, if the frescoes exhibit an aesthetic that can be read on many levels and, simply by virtue of their mysteriousness, present a challenge for interpreters, the ambiguity of the horse-head-tree cannot be excluded a priori. This would mean that we have here an example – rare in Islamic art – of a picture puzzle.

    A picture puzzle is a picture that can be seen as two quite different things, ideally in such a way that one image ceases to be recognisable as the other comes into focus. There are, of course, many hybrid forms. One famous example is the allegorical faces in the paintings of Arcimboldo (1527–1593), composed of objects with a particular theme. It cannot be a coincidence that Arcimboldo’s paintings and those in the Wazir Khan Mosque date back to the same era: the start of the Modern Age, the late Renaissance, Mannerism. In Arcimboldo’s paintings, though, the ambiguity, unlike that of the paintings in the Wazir Khan Mosque, is very obvious. Presumably every viewer sees in Arcimboldo’s paintings both the face and the individual elements of which it is composed. There is no great secret here.

    However, perhaps it is precisely the transparency of Arcimboldo’s paintings, the fact that they are easily understood, that is most interesting about them. After all, his contemporaries were not flooded with pictures and trained in how to look at them, as we are today. While for the likes of us Arcimboldo’s images seem transparent, almost without secrets, we must assume that there was much for his contemporaries to discover in his paintings.

    Furthermore, the direction in which Arcimboldo’s allegorical faces are understood is the opposite of the ambiguous paintings in the Wazir Khan Mosque. With Arcimboldo, we see the overall image first, i.e. the face. Only then (and in coming closer) do we realise what it is composed of. In this sense, these pictures are lessons in aesthetic constructivism: they are didactic in that they make us aware of the act of seeing and the functioning of perception. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the philosophers René Descartes (1596–1650) and George Berkeley (1685–1753) wrote their texts on the philosophy of perception just a few decades later.

    What we see in Lahore is not the didactic ambiguity of Arcimboldo’s picture puzzles. Here, the observer only recognises the picture puzzles if he already knows what he is looking for – and presumably only those contemporaries who knew about them would have been able to see or recognise the other, hidden picture or symbol beneath the surface of the picture puzzle. These people possessed a knowledge and pictorial experience that in the Mughal Empire of the time was available only to the courtly elite.

    However, substantiating the theory of the picture puzzles in Lahore requires better examples than the above-mentioned horse motif, or the interpretation of individual elements in the pictures as little animals, insects or symbols. We find these examples in an unexpected place: the Dai Anga Mosque, outside the city walls of Lahore, in the Naulakha district near the train station.

    Picture puzzles in the Dai Anga Mosque

    Lahore’s Dai Anga Mosque is far less well-known than the Wazir Khan and is presumably seldom visited by tourists, not many of whom come to Lahore in any case. Once situated on one of Lahore’s main arterial roads (the road to Delhi, in fact), since the railway network was built by the British it has stood directly beside the train tracks, not far from the station, but difficult to find: at the end of a dead-end street leading onto the tracks, and in the middle of a slum. Information on the date of the mosque’s construction varies from 1635 to 1649: at any rate, it was built at around the same time as the Wazir Khan. Since only the decorative elements are of interest for our purposes, I will comment here only on this aspect of the mosque. Parts of the interior decoration have obviously been destroyed or have fallen victim to subsequent renovation work, as can be seen below. Key elements have, however, been preserved, namely the tiled inlay work in the central dome of the prayer chamber, over the prayer niche, and in the pointed arches that lead outside and to the side aisles.

    The inexperienced observer sees nothing in the tiles but highly abstract leaves, flowers and vases. However, if we entertain the possibility that they might be picture puzzles, we can easily piece together the floral elements to make pictures of animal heads: tigers’ heads, lions’ heads; probably other big cats such as the cheetah, which the Mughals tamed and trained for hunting; possibly snow leopards, which the Mughals would have encountered in Afghanistan or the Himalayas; perhaps also the head of an ostrich. The point, though, is not to be able to say for certain what exactly they represent. This is left to the beholder’s imagination. However, it cannot simply be denied that it is indeed possible to interpret these tile mosaics in such a way. It would be strange if this were merely coincidence or, alternatively, just the product of modern ways of seeing. Heightened aesthetic attraction and increased profusion of meaning argue in favour of our approach – increased in comparison with the assumption that we are dealing simply with abstract floral motifs.

    What is also striking about these picture puzzles is their positioning. It is impossible for anyone entering or anyone praying to overlook them. Anyone bowing down towards Mecca and facing the prayer niche says his prayers under the eyes of these big cats. They keep watch over prayer and faith in much the same way as the Mughals saw themselves as guardians of the religion – unorthodox though the Mughal comprehension of religion may have appeared to some. It is as if the eyes of the big cats are acting as proxies for the watchful eyes of the Mughal rulers, which in turn are proxies for the eye of God in this world. Given the cliché of Islam’s hostility to images, it is not surprising that this has gone unnoticed to date by art historians, nor that the knowledge seems to have been lost locally as well, as we see from the restoration work undertaken in recent years in the lower part of the prayer room. However, where this restoration has – presumably unwittingly – followed the traditional pattern, the original, ambiguous pictorial impression is maintained, even where the intention of ambiguity has been forgotten. During my visits to the mosque I was able to observe a craftsman going about his work of cutting tiles for the ongoing restoration, little suspecting that he could be violating the ban on images.

    The transition from ornamentation to image

    In this context, it is helpful to make a fundamental consideration of the relationship between ornamentation and image. It would be shortsighted to see an ornamental structure as nothing but ornamentation or, at most, an abstraction of naturally-occurring structures such as plants or tendrils. The possibility of a transition from ornamentation to concrete depiction is always there: it is inherent in every ornamental structure. Even if this possibility is not realised in the ornamentation, the door is always open for an extension into the concrete. The transition is fluid: the precise point at which ornamentation becomes image cannot be determined objectively but lies in the eye of the beholder. Works by M.C. Escher inspired by Islamic art, exhibited in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam in 2013, are illustrative of this insight and contribute to our understanding of the Mughal art of picture puzzles.

    Or do such reflections indicate that we have been deceived by a peculiarly modern misunderstanding? Schooled in the polyvalence of modern art, are we the victims of our own, highly complex viewing habits? What argues against this is that there is another famous example of the transition from ornamentation to figurative illustration that dates from approximately the same time as the Mughal architecture, but at the opposite end of the Islamic (or by this time no longer Islamic) world. It is significant not only because of its contemporaneity with Mughal architecture, but also because it too draws on syncretic sources and is indebted to a special mix of cultures. The example is from so-called Mudéjar art in Andalucía after the Reconquista. It is the tilework in the Salon of Carlos V in the Alcázar Palace of Seville, from the workshop of Cristóbal de Augusta, manufactured between 1577 and 1583. Here, floral ornamentation, faces, and depictions of animals blend into one another and can only be differentiated if examined very closely, with careful attention to detail. The different socio-cultural and religious-ideological conditions in the Mughal Empire resulted in different aesthetic solutions for creating illustrative ornamentation. The possibility that such illustration exists is not, however, the product of modern viewing habits or viewing requirements. The tile ornamentation in the prayer chamber of the Dai Anga Mosque realises this possibility in an ingenious, unobtrusive manner. Anyone who wishes to can see in it the animals’ heads. But nobody must. The conflation of ornament and picture is thus incorporated into the work more subtly than in Escher’s motifs, or the tile frieze by Cristóbal de Augusta in Seville.

    Ceramics ornamentation often works similarly to Escher’s, whether on actual ceramic objects or their depictions. One example of the latter from the Mughal period is the picture of a vase in the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daula in Agra. It is decorated with fishes – ornamentally entwined, but unmistakably fishes. The same principle is also often found in tiles used as wall covering; some Iranian examples are on display in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin. Early examples of a similar technique are found in the frieze in the Umayyad palace of Mshatta, which dates back to the mid-eighth century. In all these examples, the interplay of ornament and image is an integral aesthetic element, whereby the image is always part of the ornament, the ornament part of the image.

    We know from calligraphy that picture-puzzle-style phenomena in the stricter sense (the interplay of ornament and image alone does not constitute a picture puzzle) are not entirely foreign to Islamic tradition. I would like to make particular reference to two calligraphic images found in the manuscript room of the Lahore Museum. One obviously depicts a head. The face, too, is clearly recognisable. According to Annemarie Schimmel it is a ‘calligraphic head with the names of Muhammad and his family members, by Bahadur Shah Zafar’. A second work is the calligraphic abstraction of a vase motif, similar to some of those in the Wazir Khan Mosque. This calligraphy makes apparent something that is initially concealed by the vase motifs with their lavish coloured illustration. The vase with flowers can be interpreted as a caricature of a human figure, and the calligraphy indubitably takes this association into account; it may even be its specific intention. The appeal of this image lies in its threefold interpretability, from concrete to abstract in the following order: letters – vase of flowers – human figure.

    Flower creatures and other figures

    Given the examples cited above, it no longer seems far-fetched to anticipate picture puzzles, or at least pictures that can be read and interpreted in multiple ways, when contemplating interior decoration in Mughal architecture. This is especially true of the numerous frescoes with flower and vase motifs in the prayer room of the Wazir Khan Mosque. While in certain instances the Mughal artists’ objective may have been for their depictions of plants to imitate nature as faithfully as possible, this was certainly not the case with the frescoes in the Wazir Khan Mosque. These peculiar flower arrangements are far removed from any figurative realism. The most talented florist would be unable to recreate them.

    The first thing that makes it possible to read faces or figures into the pictures of flower vases is the simple fact that they are almost entirely symmetrical. This corresponds to the symmetry of bodies and faces. Symmetry may have been an artistic requirement. However, it would have been easy to avoid symmetry if one wished at all costs to avoid any association with figures and faces. There are also pictures of vases that exclude any possibility of an alternative reading, such as the flower motifs in the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore or the Mahabat Khan Mosque in Peshawar, as well as many asymmetrical depictions of plants. The association can also be avoided in simple depictions of flowers, i.e. flowers on stalks, without a vase: we often come across these when flowers are portrayed using pietra dura technique.

    However, if we discern figures or faces in the flower vases, and are perhaps supposed to discern them because this is the artists’ intention, this poses the question of what exactly may be depicted there and what the purpose of such depictions might be. One thing, at least, is clear: the flower-vase creatures – for want of a better name – can hardly be read as animal ciphers, like the tiles over the prayer niche in the Dai Anga Mosque. They also cannot be translated back to other concrete models or entities in the real world. Nonetheless, they are faces or figures, as the descriptions in the individual illustrations accompanying this article make clear. As faces or figures, they are symbolic of something; they represent something, much as the hair of the Prophet in the branches of the acacia represents the Prophet himself.

    We cannot, however, clearly establish what it is these ‘vase creatures’ symbolise. Inasmuch as they are not figures taken from reality, they may be creatures of the imagination and demons (djinns), like those found in mythology and in the world of Oriental fairytale. One could, though, also see the vase creatures as a kind of coded heraldry: as the Islamised version of mythical or real heraldic animals in the Occident. There are two possible frames of reference: the religious, and the courtly-imperial, which should not be seen as strictly separate. Rather, it seems reasonable to assume that the core intention of these images and their dual readability may be precisely the conflation of these two spheres.

    This would fit with the Mughal rulers’ intention not only to legitimise their rule on a religious basis, as most rulers attempt to do, but also, as mentioned above, to develop their own courtly-religious agenda, and for this to reflect, at least to some extent, the religious heterogeneity of the Mughal empire. It is common knowledge that this understanding of religion also found expression in Mughal painting, and it is easy to demonstrate the influence of Hindu painting on Mughal miniatures. We know, for example, that there were Mughal copies of the Ramayana epic for use in the house of the ruling dynasty. The pictorial world of this epic differs from that of the miniatures with their epics from the Persian region, some of which were Islamised. Particularly striking in it is the depiction of demons.

    The idea of what a demon might look like, and the fact that one was permitted to depict it, may thus have been adopted into the imaginative world of the Mughal court and the courtly elite. Similarly, it is also possible to attest the influence of Christian art, most obviously in the form of the nimbus frequently seen in portraits of Mughal rulers. We also often find depictions of angels, and this too may owe a debt to the influence of Western Christian painting.

    There are some specific idiosyncrasies in the portraits of Mughal rulers that are deserving of mention, irrespective of any such influence from other, non-Islamic pictorial traditions. The rulers were regularly portrayed wearing an eye-catching string of pearls, and we may assume that they did indeed wear such a necklace, at least for certain occasions. Sometimes their turbans are decorated with feathers, or again with pearls. When the rulers are portrayed seated, as is often the case, they are frequently sitting on their lower legs in a kind of lotus position, and are slightly elevated. With their clothing, they form a triangle.

    The effect is often similar when they are portrayed standing, as they are then frequently wearing a bell-like, oddly transparent skirt. Judging by these miniatures, their clothing was also decorated with ornamental plant motifs and flowers, such that the ruler – if the comparison is permissible – himself resembled a flower, radiating his aura to all those around him. And if the ruler himself resembles and creates the effect of a bouquet of flowers, it seems reasonable to interpret a bouquet of flowers as a cipher for the ruler, or as a symbol of the aura of authority.

    If we identify the vase paintings in the Wazir Khan Mosque as faces, we observe that they are looking straight out at the viewer. They encounter us on a level; it is almost as if they see and recognise us better than we do them – especially if we really do see them as nothing more than flower motifs. This direct gaze coming straight at the viewer out of the painting means there is something slightly hypnotic, hypnotising about them. The pictures also communicate with the viewer, in that they assign us puzzles to solve and play with our perception. They mislead perception, whether by persuading the viewer to believe that they are not merely flower vases but faces, or by pretending to be nothing more than flower vases. They play with the viewer’s perception in that they do not allow themselves to be defined and stabilised as a fixed, definitive visual impression, and because they cannot readily be seen or recognised, but are, despite their individuality, easily confused with one another. And because they must constantly be rearranged in the eye of the beholder, like a Cubist painting. These paintings are themselves living creatures in the sense that they interact with the viewer, who reacts to them in his own specific way, does so differently at different moments and in different moods, and sees in them different things.

    There is, incidentally, an anthropological constant that accounts for the capacity and desire to see faces in an apparently abstract pattern. In post-modern French philosophy this is referred to as visagéité – ‘faciality’ in English. In their essay on the subject, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari interpret this phenomenon as a specifically Western-Christian phenomenon: ‘The face is not a universal. (…) The face is Christ. The face is the typical European.’ However, the media scientist Laura Marks, who takes up this theory in her book about the Islamic roots of new media art, emphasises that faciality can hardly be culturally specific: ‘Other bodies and body-like things make us aware of our own being. Even a religious convert (to Islam) cannot erase the meaning of bodies and their stories from her experience. (…) The figurative tendency occurs when the visible begins to vibrate with potential.’ In both Deleuze/Guattari and Marks, the visibility of the face expresses the relationship to a higher power, whether institutional or abstract-discursive. If we assume, on a trial basis, that this theory is correct, we can say with reference to the picture puzzles in the Wazir Khan Mosque that this power – namely that of the Mughals – is what we see when we perceive abstractions of faces in the vase paintings.

    It is my contention that the central concept of the iconographic programme in the prayer chamber of the Wazir Khan Mosque consists of immediate and at the same time unconscious communication with the viewer in an almost hypnotic interaction with his subconscious. The vase paintings do not depict a ruler or a higher being himself: rather, they are representatives of higher powers in an alternative cosmos, one that can no longer be portrayed using the usual mimetic means. They represent the essence, the aura, the nature of authority, purified of everything pictorially concrete in a similar sense to the way the Muslim mystic or Hindu ascetic passes through numerous levels of disembodiment and spiritual enlightenment in order to get closer to God (or Brahman). When the visitor walks first through the entry portal, then into the courtyard and prayer chamber of the Wazir Khan Mosque, it is as if he is passing through a lock: past a gallery of spiritual and worldly authority and their symbols, in which the Prophet also figures as a central element, or is represented by a proxy – by his hair, and possibly, in the picture opposite, by his horse, Buraq, on whom he is said to have undertaken his nocturnal ride through the heavens to Jerusalem, concealed here in the foliage of the tree. However, this also means that it is only if we recognise the vase paintings as picture puzzles and representatives of worldly and spiritual Mughal rule, in the sense of a translatio imperii from the Prophet Mohammed, that Kamil Khan Mumtaz’ interpretation of the framed painting with the hair of the Prophet can appear plausible, even obligatory.

    Microcosm and macrocosm

    A comparison with miniature painting can help us better to understand the aesthetic concept of the Wazir Khan. Miniature painting is a self-contained world, in which the figures only ever look at each other, not usually out of the painting at the viewer. Miniature painting constitutes a microcosm, as we are intended to understand from the smallness of the depiction: a world you can hold in your hand, or open like a book. The ‘vase creatures’ in the Wazir Khan Mosque, however, encounter the viewer at eye level, or even stand above him. They represent a macrocosm that simultaneously encroaches upon the world of men and looms above it, like the tent of the sky, which we also find in the ceiling decoration.

    Entering the prayer chamber of the Wazir Khan Mosque means entering an intersection, an overlap of the human cosmos and the macrocosm. As incommensurable as the macrocosm is for the world of men, the flower figures, and with them the entire decoration of the prayer chamber, are as incommensurable for the observer. He senses that this all has a meaning, and he will know, understand and see more depending on the level of his religious and esoteric-mystical initiation: but he will never be able to understand everything. The imagery in the mosque ultimately remains bigger than he is – as was probably also the case for its builders, craftsmen and painters, who at best were skilled at and understood only their particular aspect of the design.

    Drugs and defective eyesight

    Finally, I would like to mention two aspects that contemporary art historians, for the most part, tend to overlook, but which must for centuries have made a crucial difference to observers. The first is uncorrected defective vision (which is still not corrected as widely in the Orient as it is in the West). Defective vision means that the observer has a different view of the flower creatures, a view that the unhindered observer can get a sense of if he looks at these pictures from very far away, or in a very small reproduction, such as the miniature electronic photos known as thumbnails. If one does this, the resemblance between the vase creatures and figures or faces becomes far more clearly apparent; indeed, only then does it really, unequivocally, appear – as some of the frescoes, deliberately reproduced here in very small format for this purpose, should demonstrate. So in this sense, too, the decoration is alive: no two people see it the same way, and even for the individual observer it may change form in the course of his lifetime, as his eyesight and vision change.

    Another aspect that is also seldom considered, but which should not be underestimated as far as the aesthetics of perception are concerned, relates to the effect of intoxicants. We know the Mughals liked to partake of these – often, indeed, to extremes: primarily alcohol, but also opium and its derivatives. The scholar of Iranian studies and ethnologist Rudolf Gelpke writes: ‘Hemp drugs have so often inspired Islamic artists in a wide variety of fields (poetry, storytelling, architecture, painting, music, and especially the all-pervading Sufi mysticism) and have had such a deep, broad and lasting impact that the effects of the drug on mind and spirit have entered into these works of art, influencing their form and content.’ I have already suggested, in speaking of its rather hypnotic effect, that the prayer chamber of the Wazir Khan Mosque could be construed as a psychedelic room, and that it can impact on the observer in this way. For someone under the influence of drugs, this impression would obviously be intensified in all kinds of ways. To this day the consumption of hashish, although officially strictly forbidden, is widespread in Pakistan, not least in Sufi circles. The experience of drugs described by twentieth-century Western writers such as Henri Michaux and Aldous Huxley could also be taken as a handbook for a perception-psychological interpretation of the prayer chamber in the Wazir Khan Mosque – though only, of course, if one is prepared to engage with its ambiguity and vivid picture puzzles, and in so doing to acknowledge the Mughals’ cosmological vision, their blending of spheres, and the syncretism of their spiritual worldview, instead of reducing the interpretation to a few commonplaces according to the Sunni orthodoxy of our times (which, when referring to the Mughals, can only be an anachronism).

    Nevertheless – or for precisely this reason – it seems important to stress in conclusion that the picture puzzles in Lahore do not contradict the orthodox ban on images: rather, they ultimately confirm it. They may provide expression for people’s need for images; however, they do not satisfy this need objectively, but only through the subjective perception of the initiated and willing observer. In a certain sense one might describe it as an iconographic taqiyya – concealment of the true, heterodox convictions of those who commissioned this mosque, the purpose of which was to reconcile contradictory worldviews and aesthetic expectations. Because if we look at them superficially, all we ever see are flowers and vases. The ban on images thus remains broadly inviolate in the realm of Mughal sacred architecture. There is no need to rewrite the history of Islamic art – these remarkable exceptions simply add to its wonders.
    Stefan Weidner is a scholar of Islam and editor-in-chief of Art & Thought / Fikrun wa Fann.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2014

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