Friday, 26 March 2010

Mogul Emperor Babur and the Asian Civilizations Museum ‘Treasury of the World’ exhibit

As governing systems, monarchies tend to have limitations. Meritocratic traditions often suffer due to personal considerations. Policy decisions may be based on expediencies associated with dynastic loyalties or personal whims. Individual preferences are paramount, especially without a system of checks and balances.
However, monarchies sometimes represent the pinnacle of human achievements in various fields. A wealthy empire generates cash faster than Bernanke's Fed prints US Dollars. This copious amount of imperial cash is concentrated in a few influential hands.
The last Mogul Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II who nominally presided over the Empire from 1837-1857

If the King or a close member of his Court is artistically inclined then the result is a historical artistic legacy of monumental proportions. Since royals' are far up Maslow's triangular hierarchy of needs, much money finds itself supporting the creative arts.
The Mogul Empire provides a rich example of royal patronage at work. The Mogul dynasty was founded in 1526 by Babur, an exiled Muslim warrior prince from Andijan, Uzbekistan. The dynasty formally ended with Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar being sent into unceremonious exile by British colonials in 1858, after the failed 1857 mutiny.
During the 331 years of unbroken rule by Emperor Babar's progeny, the Moguls gave the world more than just the word 'Mogul.' (The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Mogul as 'a great personage or magnate.') Perhaps the most famous gift is the Taj Mahal, completed in 1653 during the reign of Shah Jahan (aka the Great Builder).
A small part of the Mogul heritage is currently on display at the 'Treasury of the World' exhibit at Singapore's Asian Civilizations Museum. The exhibit brings to Singapore a small collection of Mogul items from the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. The House of al-Sabah family is the ruling family of Kuwait.
Miniature painting depicting Emperor Jahangir (1605- 1627) preferring Sufi saint to waiting kings at his Court

The scope of the exhibition is small; there are not many items on display. The bulk of the pieces comprise of jewellery, knives and daggers. Do not be misled, the knives and daggers are formal and bedecked with precious stones. Mogul workmanship of the highest quality is on display.
However, the exhibition does not do justice the broad array of arts patronized by Mogul Emperors during the dynasty. Of course, much of the beauty is contained within structures that are themselves a part of the Mogul artistic heritage, including mausoleums and mosques.
Painting of Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan (1628 - 1658), builder of the Taj Mahal

The exhibition is a brief introduction to one of history's greatest empires. It manifests the power of official patronage as a source of creativity.
It reminds one of the beauty and splendours of Courtly life, of the benevolence of an invading Central Asian Muslim conqueror's dynasty now accepted by most Indians as 'sons of the soil,' Babur's destroyed Babri Masjid notwithstanding.
NB – The official museum literature has a proud stamp across the front stating, 'First Time in Asia.' Asian Civilizations Museum curators may do well to examine a map and guess which continent the state of Kuwait resides within – I don't believe Kuwait is located in Europe.


  1. How Imperialism crumbled down the mighty Empire!
    I have heard tales about the last Mogul from my granduncle, who was a doc in Rangoon (now Yangon). The burial of Bahadur Shah Zafar II has some heart-touching lines written on it. It loosely translates to how a son of soil had the bad luck of not getting a piece of land in his own 'Hindustan'

    1. Thanks for the comment, Tiaraa!

      I really wish to visit Bahadur Shah Zafar's grave in Rangoon one day.