Page of calligraphy

Mir Ali Haravi was so famous as a calligrapher that the major artistic patrons of his age in Iran, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan fought for his services. Examples of his work were collected by royal patrons in India and Iran in the centuries to follow. Mir Ali produced designs for large-scale architectural inscriptions as well as album page like this one. He was the master of nasta’liq (“hanging script”), the script in which the verses here are written. The aesthetic appeal of elegant poetry was enhanced by the work of skilled calligraphers and illuminators, as seen in this example.

Bowl with splashed and incised decoration

This earthenware bowl is covered by an off-white slip and decorated with splashes of green, dark brown, and ochre colors derived respectively from copper, manganese, and iron oxides run into a transparent lead glaze. Islamic splashed wares were found in Samarra (Iraq) in the ninth century, and recent evidence indicates they were made in Basra (Iraq). They were found throughout the eastern Islamic world by the tenth century. This bowl is related to ones from Nishapur in northeastern Iran. The incised and glazed decorations are unrelated to one another; they demonstrate complexity of design, which is a common feature of Islamic art. Although this bowl may seem to resemble Chinese Tang dynasty (619-906) “three-color” (sancai) ware, the relationship between Chinese and Islamic splashed wares is unclear and still being debated. The Tang ware shapes are different; they were manufactured earlier and were mainly used for funerary purposes and not for export.

Architectural panel

This panel is part of a wide marble band that once encircled the central courtyard of the royal palace of Sultan Ala’ al-Daulah Mas’ud III (born 1061), the twelfth ruler of the Ghaznavid dynasty. The band comprised more than five hundred such panels and was 820 feet (250 meters) in length. Only forty-four panels were found in their original position. Many others, including this one, had been reused elsewhere in Ghazni after the palace fell into disuse. This is one of the few complete examples known to exist outside Afghanistan. Each panel carried a small part of an overall inscription, a poem eulogizing the ancestors of Mas’ud III and describing his achievements. This panel is one of the first examples on which the Persian language was used instead of Arabic for a monumental inscription. Originally, the inscription was painted in ultramarine blue against a red background, a common color scheme at the time (the colors have since deteriorated).

A King of Hell

This painting offers an interpretation of Buddhist conceptions of death and reincarnation. It depicts one of ten kings of hell who serves under the deity of the afterlife. In the teachings of some forms of Buddhism, it is said that when people die, their souls must appear before each of the ten kings of hell to have their lives reviewed. This judgment determines the fate of the dead. Some are sent to a cold or hot hell. Others are reborn as a deity, a human, an animal, a demon, or a ghost.

Mandala of the Buddhist deity Vajrabhairava

Mandalas are schematic designs of the three-dimensional palaces of Tibetan deities. They serve as aids for meditation and for visualization of particular deities. While painted mandalas are usually found in museums’ collections, examples in metal are very rare.

Vajrabhairava is the central deity of this mandala. He is a fierce form of Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom; Manjushri adopts this terrifying form in order to conquer death. His violent aspect is emphasized by his rectangular bull’s face with its eleven heads, his threatening horns, and his body with thirty-four outstretched hands and sixteen trampling feet.

A mandala of the Hindu deity Durga

A mandala is a cosmic diagram used as an aid to meditation. The central deity represents the Hindu goddess Durga in her manifestation as Mahishasuramardini, slayer of the buffalo demon. She stands triumphant with her eighteen arms brandishing various weapons, while dispatching with her trident the demon Mahisha, who has just emerged from the decapitated buffalo. The lotus petals surrounding Durga contain the Eight Mother Goddesses. The Hindu Triad, consisting of Shiva (riding on the bull Nandi), Brahma (on the swanlike Hamsa), and Vishnu (on Garuda) surmounts the mandala. The gods are flanked by Surya (the sun on the left), and Chandra (the moon on the right). The rest of the planetary deities are shown on the bottom.

Base for a water pipe

The central plateau region of southern India, called the Deccan, was home to several Islamic dynasties whose patronage supported the development of distinctive art forms and styles. This water pipe (huqqa) base represents a type of inlaid metal ware known as bidri, after the Deccani city of Bidar, where the production technique is said to have been practiced since the fifteenth century. Bidri water pipe bases were probably first produced shortly after tobacco was introduced into the Deccan by Portuguese traders in the late sixteenth century.

Architecture, landscapes, and animals are almost never found on bidri ware. Most examples depict floral designs. The pavilions decorating this water pipe base recall chini khanas, or “china rooms,” popular architectural features during the Mughal period in north India (1526-1858). Their multiple niches were used to display objects such as Chinese porcelains, which were highly prized at South Asian courts.

Serpent king (nagaraja)

Nagas (supernatural serpents) often appear in Indian mythology. They can take on partial or complete human form, as in this sculpture of a naga king. The man and the seven-headed serpent here are understood to be two forms of the same being. Nagas are associated with fertility and the life-giving powers of water in the world’s rivers, lakes, and oceans. They are usually benevolent and even protective, not evil or threatening as in the mythology of many other parts of the world. The inscription on the base of the image says that it was made in 207, during the reign of the Kushan king Vasudeva. It reads:

In the regnal year eighty, 80, of the Great King, the King over Kings, the son of the Gods, the Shahi Vasudeva, in the second month of the rainy season, 2, at the third day, at this date this image of the venerable Nakra was installed as the gift of the general Trivahana [?] [and] of the sons of the Account Keeper of the Treasury, Sulakshaka. Yallarah [?]. May the Lord Nagaraja be pleased. (Translation by Prof. Harry Falk)

Nine deities

Nine deities sit on their characteristic animals or thrones within arched niches. Only a few, such as Surya, the sun god, at the far left, can be positively identified. Many similar stone representations of this set of nine deities are known from ancient Angkor. Scholars have long debated exactly whom they depict. There is a Hindu tradition of nine planetary deities, each associated with a celestial body—such as the sun, Venus, or a comet—known to ancient astronomers, and these nine are sometimes represented together in Indian sculpture. It is likely that similar depictions of nine deities from Cambodia represent the same set of nine celestial bodies. It is not certain where and how such stone groupings of nine deities were displayed in temples.