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KEY WORDS AND IDEAS
Mughal empire, royal hunt, dagger, Emperor Shah Jahan, natural world, album, animals, nephrite (jade), steel
LINK TO THE THEME OF THIS CHAPTER
Mughal emperors were keen observers of animals and the blue bull (nilgai)—a large antelope native to India—was among their favorites. The intimate familiarity with the features of the blue bull, as well as the fine quality of the carving, suggest that this dagger was made in the royal workshop by someone with access to the imperial zoo, which would have housed both native and foreign animals.
Finely carved daggers such as this were seldom used as weapons, but rather were part of the royal ceremonial costume of the Mughal court. Surviving daggers featuring animal heads are relatively rare, and were probably worn by those of the highest status at the Mughal court.
The head of the blue bull, which forms the handle of this dagger, features thin hollow ears, delicately carved facial features, and grooves along the neckline where the owner could rest his fingers. At the base of the hilt, a lotuslike flower rests in a leaf scroll, which bulges over the edge—a feature that prevents the hand from slipping from the smooth handle onto the sharp blade. The blue tone of the jade (nephrite) resembles the animal's coat, which was admired for its bluish gray hue.
The Mughal emperors' interest in animals might be considered paradoxical by today's standards. They admired animals for their beauty, enjoyed observing them in the wild and in the imperial zoo, but also were avid hunters and even held animal fights at the court where courtiers could place bets on their favorites. Court painters were often present during these fights and sketched the animals from life (fig. 34).
While the Mughals' Islamic faith informed their disapproval of large-scale figurative sculpture, India had a rich indigenous sculptural tradition, which influenced Mughal art. This figural tradition was transformed by the Mughals into objects such as this one—small in scale and finely executed. The genre of small-scale animal sculptures and depictions flourished in Mughal India, and the handle of this dagger, with its realistically carved head of a blue bull, is a prime example of this trend.