The Sport of Kings: Art of the Hunt in Iran and India

, Arthur M. Sackler Museum
  • Buffalo Hunt: preparatory drawing for wall painting in the Chhattar Mahal

    Buffalo Hunt: preparatory drawing for wall painting in the Chhattar Mahal

  • Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar Returns from a Boar Hunt

    Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar Returns from a Boar Hunt

    The painting depicts Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar (r. 1778-1828) returning from a boar hunt with his attendants and retinue. The haloed king is mounted on a caparisoned horse holding a pig-sticking spear. He wears a green jama, or robe, that is associated with aheria, or the spring hunt, when boars are hunted in Rajasthan. According to Rajasthani tradition, it is believed that the outcome of aheria fortetold the fruitfulness of the kingdom for the year ahead. Bhim Singh's had a successful hunt, alluded to by the several slain wild board strapped to the backs of the camels leading the procession. At the bottom corner of the image are two members of the hunting retinue with Saluki hounds, which were commonly used during boar hunting for stalking, chasing, and, at times, killing. A facloner is also present among the procession. The attendants carry the necessary royal attributes: two attendants carry fly whisks while one holds a sun-faced standard, which accompanies any Mewari royal procession. The sun is a symbol of the Mewar royal family who believed that they were descendants of it. This painting was executed before Bhim Singh became the first maharana of the Princely State of Udaipur.

  • Tribal People Hunting Black Buck at Night

    Tribal People Hunting Black Buck at Night

    On a night graced by a full moon, three Bhil hunters, two women and one man, approach a herd of entranced deer. The painting displays one of the many forms of hunting described by Abul Fazl, the court historian of Mughal emperor Akbar and author of the Âîn-i Akbarî. The ghantabhera hunt employed trackers from the Bhil tribe who carried shields or baskets with the concave sides away from them. A lamp in the concavity of the shield or basket created a reflected beam of light while also concealing the bearer. In this scene, a female tracker also rings a small bell. The sound of the bell and the light of the lamps attracts the animals toward the hunters; as Abul Fazl describes, "Sometimes hunters will charm them with a song, and when the deer approach will rise up and cruelly slay them." This painting comes from the provincial Mughal school at Faizabad, a center known for producing many versions of this subject. A red sandstone fortress rises in the distance, drawing attention to the division between the ordered urban space of the Mughal empire and the rugged wilderness of the tribal people who lived at its fringes. (label text from Sport of Kings exhibition January 2005).

  • Star Tile with Two Birds and Flowers

    Star Tile with Two Birds and Flowers

  • Raja Balwant Singh's Hunt

    Raja Balwant Singh's Hunt

    This scene takes place on the scenic banks of the river Tawi in the state of Jammu in northern India. Wearing a dark green jama, Raja Balwant Singh, king of Jasrota, leans forward with a sword in one hand to defend his elephant from an attacking lion. The scene is packed with intense action, all the retainers on foot and on horseback rushing forward to help. The mahaout elephant trainer is poised to push the elephant goad into the head of the lion. The sparse setting gives little clue to the foreground violence: the landscape is bare, dotted with just a few palash trees. The chaotic scene is witnessed by a distant hawk, who circles through the sky above. Nainsukh was one of the most famous artists working in the Punjab Hills. Balwant Singh comissioned numerous portraits from Nainsukh, ranging from scenes of state audiences and royal hunts to intimate moments in the life of the ruler. (label text from Sport of Kings exhibition January 2005).

  • Khan ‘Alam, Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s Falconer and His Ambassador to Iran, with a Sparrow Hawk

    Khan ‘Alam, Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s Falconer and His Ambassador to Iran, with a Sparrow Hawk

    Khan 'Alam was the Mughal Emperor Jahangir's (r. 1605-1627) ambassador to Iran as well as his chief falconer. Here, he stands outdoors with a sparrow hawk perched on his gloved right hand. Red jesses connect the bird of prey to Khan 'Alam's sash. In his left hand, Khan 'Alam clutches onto a small bird, which serves as bagged game, previously caught prey which is either served to the raptor or used in its training.

  • Matchlock Gun (Torador)

    Matchlock Gun (Torador)

    Filling the page fragment is a matchlock gun. The long stock features small silvery flowers near its extended breech, here painted dark gray. The match, which rests on top of the breech, would be ignited to set off the mechanism, which then fires the gun. The top of the long barrel is painted light gray and is decorated with flowers and other patterns. It has a decorative muzzle also painted in light gray. Such matchlocks were intended for hunting, and were made for aristocratic clientele. Rajput Style, Kota School.

  • Star Tile with a Hound

    Star Tile with a Hound

  • Figure of a Hawk

    Figure of a Hawk

  • Rustam and the Iranians Hunt in Afrasiyab’s Preserves (painting, recto; text, verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    Rustam and the Iranians Hunt in Afrasiyab’s Preserves (painting, recto; text, verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    While Rustam was resting and feasting during a break from battle, one of his mighty companions, known as champions, suggested that they go hunting in the territory of their enemy, Afrasiyab, the king of Turan. After a week spent enthusiastically poaching animals and birds, Rustam fully expected retribution from the king, and he was unconcerned when Afrasiyab bore down on the Iranian interlopers with an army of thirty thousand men. Each of his champions, Rustam said, was the equal of five hundred of Afrasiyab’s men. The lively illustration shows the Iranians hunting, before Afrasiyab’s arrival compels them to resume battle. A group of riders, wearing distinctive Safavid headgear, pursues a host of animals: deer, leopards, rams, and wild onagers. The archer at the upper left is identified as Rustam by his characteristic tiger-skin coat and leopard helmet.

  • Sujan Singh of Bikaner and Ladies Shooting Heron from a Terrace

    Sujan Singh of Bikaner and Ladies Shooting Heron from a Terrace

    This painting depicts a young Sujan Singh (r. 1700-35) of Bikanier shooting herons from a palace terrace. He aims his matchlock gun at a group of heron circling in the sky. Behind him, a princess points to the group of birds, while a female attendant holds a fly whisk. On the left side of the composition, another female attendant picks up a slain heron. The figure behind her carries another matchlock gun. She may be a princess herself, as the attendant behind her holds a standard above her head, a symbol of imperial status. The painting may depict a friendly shooting competition between Sujan Singh and the princess. Female royalty also participated in hunting activities, as it was considered a demonstration of their grace, beauty, and intellect.

  • Rao Raja Bhoj Singh of Bundi Batters a Leaping Tiger from a Tree

    Rao Raja Bhoj Singh of Bundi Batters a Leaping Tiger from a Tree

    This painting depicts a popular mode of hunting in Rajasthan, one that conferred every advantage to the hunter. A calf, goat, or sheep is tied to the base of a tree as bait – its cries luring predatory game. The hunter, in this case Rao Raja Bhoj Singh of Bundi, positioned on a small platform in the tree, then waits for the opportune moment to use his matchlock. As seen here, however, the strategy still carried great risk. The large tiger has killed the small calf, has been shot in the haunch, and now is seeking revenge. It leaps into the tree as the Bhoj Singh batters it in the head with the butt of his matchlock. The hunter’s attendant embodies the panic and desperation of the situation, as he frantically scrambles up the tree, his turban unraveling in the process.

  • Bowl with a Cheetah Standing on the Back of a Horse

    Bowl with a Cheetah Standing on the Back of a Horse

    Figural designs on polychrome ceramics offer tantalizing and often puzzling glimpses into the complex society of the Samanid realm, now divided between northeastern Iran and Uzbekistan.The majority of these wares are made of buff-colored earthenware decorated with lively, and often freely rendered, figural images painted in bright colors under clear glaze. The decoration of this small bowl has been executed with exceptional detail and care. Fluid and confident strokes of black slip delineate a crested bird, a spotted feline, and a well-groomed horse. These forms are filled or dotted with green and yellow. The feline and the horse raise their right forelegs; they both sport ankle bands and scalloped collars. The horse has a cropped mane, a knotted tail, and curling fetlocks. Filling its body is a bold pseudo-inscription in floriated and spiraling Kufic script. The top of its eye is defined by two extended parallel lines; this distinctive treatment is occasionally found in figural wares excavated in Nishapur. The feline may be identified as a cheetah by the black stripe descending from its eye. The vignette of a collared feline on the back of an imposing horse may be a shorthand reference to the costly, prestigious, and ancient sport of hunting with cheetahs. Capable of short bursts of extraordinary speed, cheetahs were usually set on gazelles, rabbits, and other fleet game, but because stamina was not one of their virtues, they had to be conveyed to the hunt. One of the cheetah trainer’s more demanding tasks was to teach his charge to ride pillion on the back of a horse moving at any speed. The exterior decoration of this bowl consists of pendant leaf shapes painted in an alternating pattern: a buff leaf with an interior dot-dash-dot device alternates with a colored leaf, sequentially yellow or green. No slip is detectable over the light buff ceramic body. The entire bowl, including the flat, slightly concave base, is covered in a clear glaze. The bowl has been reassembled from at least three large fragments and has minor losses and repairs along the rim.

  • Rustam and the Iranians Hunt in Afrasiyab’s Preserves (text, recto and verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    Rustam and the Iranians Hunt in Afrasiyab’s Preserves (text, recto and verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    Verso: The text corresponds with Mohl, vol. 2, lines 518 - 572. The verses describe Kay Kavus regretting his foolish exploits, the gathering of the Champions, and their hunting expedition.

  • Running Prince with Matchlock, Accompanied by Two Attendants

    Running Prince with Matchlock, Accompanied by Two Attendants

    The prince in the center is rendered in profile and carries his matchlock gun at his waist and runs over to the figure on the right. The prince wear a long jama (robe), necklaces, armlets, an earring, and a turban decorated with strands of pearls and plumes. He has a thin mustaches and distinct, flared sideburn. His silhouette has been reworked by the artist, leaving tracings of shadowy ink outlines that would have been hidden underneath opaque paint in a finished work. A sketch of an attendant appears on the left and behind the prince. On the right is another attendant. He holds his matchlock gun upright and by the barrel with his right hand, and a camouflaging hunting shield with his left. Tucked into the sash around his waist is a katar (punch dagger) and a conch shell-shaped powder flask. Peering from behind him on both sides is a long talwar sword. Rajput Style, Kota School.

  • Shield with scenes of hunting lions

    Shield with scenes of hunting lions

    The shield, made of lacquered rhinoceros hide, is painted with four vignettes featuring large golden lions: one attacks a rhinoceros-like creature; one attacks a goat; one attacks a boar; and the final one sits with its paw up. The rest of the shield is decorated with flowers, plants, and a large tree filled with monkeys. At the center of the shield is a large, painted medallion that is flanked by four silvered bosses. The bosses are faceted to give the impression of being set with diamonds. The back of the shield features a marbled pattern made of red and black lacquer. The shield is missing the four rings that would have secured the bosses into place, as well as the cushion that protected the forearm.

  • Gushtasp with the Blacksmith Burab (painting, recto; text, verso), folio of a Shahnamah of Firdawsi

    Gushtasp with the Blacksmith Burab (painting, recto; text, verso), folio of a Shahnamah of Firdawsi

  • Helmet with Chain-Mail Guard

    Helmet with Chain-Mail Guard

  • Story of Kay Khusraw Reviewing his Army, and Tus Leading the Iranians into Turan (text, recto and verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    Story of Kay Khusraw Reviewing his Army, and Tus Leading the Iranians into Turan (text, recto and verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    Text page concerning Kay Khusraw preparing the army and Tus, with his troops, marching on Turan. Recto. Text corresponds with Ramazani (1963) vol. 2, pp. 95-97, lines 2273 - 2335; text describes Kay Khusraw setting his army in order. Verso. Text corresponds with Ramazani (1963) vol. 2, pp. 97 - 100, lines, 2336 - 2406; subtitles in text read, "Mobilization of Tus to Turan," and Departure of Tus and his army."

  • Kay Khusraw Reviews His Troops (painting, verso; text, recto), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    Kay Khusraw Reviews His Troops (painting, verso; text, recto), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    Kay Khusraw, grown to manhood and now king of Iran, prepared to mount a campaign against the Turanian murderers of his father, Siyavush. Seated on a jeweled throne atop his mammoth war elephant, he rode out to review his army. The great imperial warriors, including Fariburz and Gudarz, filed past. The illustration portrays Kay Khusraw in a lavish howdah; he is surrounded by mounted soldiers with colorfully caparisoned horses and gold and silver weapons and helmets.

  • Princely Tiger Hunt with Hounds

    Princely Tiger Hunt with Hounds

    In this partially-colored sketch, hunters encircle a wooded area within a quarry filled with animals. On the left, two hunters carry swords as they come across their hounds attacking a tiger. On the right, four hunters enter the woods. A tiger reclines nearby. At the top of the tree-lined quarry are four figures. The foreground features a large river with a boat. A group of hounds attack another tiger in the water, near the bank. Rajput Style, Kota or Bundi School.

  • Pen Box with Battle and Hunting Scenes

    Pen Box with Battle and Hunting Scenes

    On its upper surface, this late example of a Qajar lacquer pen case, signed by Asad Allah Dizfuli, displays a scene of epic battle. Densely packed cavalry troops flank groups of dueling warriors in the foreground, and a clustered mass of stationary cavalry stands at the farthest remove from the action. The expansive scope of the combat is conveyed by receding lines of cavalry stretching toward the horizon, resembling in effect the infinite reflections of a room of mirrors. Without any clear direction of movement or indication of a dominant group that might leave the field victorious, the scene conveys the melee of battle as a series of skirmishes between individuals, some victorious over their foes, others less fortunate. Observing men falling from their horses and awaiting their final dispatch, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the decapitated heads of victims who have already met death, an image that recalls the longstanding trope from Persian historical sources of battlefields littered with heads like balls on polo fields. The sides and base of the pen box continue the theme of martial prowess, though here men mounted on horses and armed with swords, lances, and firearms hunt deer and a lion for sport. The artist unifies these compositionally varied scenes by setting them in developed landscapes of receding planes of grass and other vegetation, with horizons given over to trees and small buildings, each one different from the next, depicted in perspective.

  • The Story of Bahram Gur Hunting (text, recto and verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    The Story of Bahram Gur Hunting (text, recto and verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    Text folio with title “Bahram Gur hunting” Recto. Text corresponds with Ramazani (1963) vol. 2, pp. 203 - 205, lines 4752 - 4801; subtitle in text reads, "How Bahram showed his accomplishment in the chase before Munzir." Verso. Text corresponds with Ramazani (1963) vol. 2, pp. 205 - 207, lines 4802 - 4850; subtitle in text reads, "How Bahram came with Numar to Yazdigird."

  • A Kota Ruler as Krishna's Form Brijnathi Hunts by Moonlight

    A Kota Ruler as Krishna's Form Brijnathi Hunts by Moonlight

    This painting depicts, on a moonlit night, Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu who is worshipped as a god in his own right, hunting. He hunts with a matchlock gun from within a small enclosure accompanied by gopis (milkmaids), who also participate in the sport. In front of the enclosure, is an artificial watering hole, which has drawn an unsuspecting herd of deer. The lush landscape is filled with other animals that were commonly hunted in Rajasthan, including tiger, black buck deer, and boar. The depiction of Krishna refers to Brijnathji, a local form of Krishna that was the family deity of the royal family of Kota. Brijnathji is frequently rendered either accompanying a ruler or participating in Kota courtly activities, conflates the deity with the ruler, fostering the concept of the “divine king”, and demonstrates a direct relationship between the king and god. Rajput Style, Kota School.

  • Bahram Gur hunts with Azada (painting, verso; text, recto), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    Bahram Gur hunts with Azada (painting, verso; text, recto), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi

    Bahram Gur, a son of Yazdigird III, took his slave girl, a harpist named Azada, on a hunt. As they rode together on his camel, Azada challenged Bahram to do the seemingly impossible: to transform a male gazelle into a female and a female into a male, and to pierce a gazelle’s foot and ear with a single shot. Bahram immediately shot the horns from a buck and sent two arrows into the head of doe; he then grazed a third gazelle’s ear with a stone and, when the animal scratched the nick, pinned its leg to its ear with one arrow. The artist of the painting has departed from the text, showing a harp-playing Azada, by herself on a camel, watching Bahram Gur hunt on horseback. Between them are a “horned” doe and an unfortunate buck shot through leg and ear. A large hunting party, uncalled for by the text, can be seen in the background, witnessing Bahram’s prowess.

  • Bahram Gur Hunts with Azada (text, recto; painting, verso), illustrated folio from the Great Ilkhanid Shahnama (Book of Kings)

    Bahram Gur Hunts with Azada (text, recto; painting, verso), illustrated folio from the Great Ilkhanid Shahnama (Book of Kings)

  • Buffalo Hunt: preparatory drawing for wall painting in the Chhattar Mahal
  • Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar Returns from a Boar Hunt
  • Tribal People Hunting Black Buck at Night
  • Star Tile with Two Birds and Flowers
  • Raja Balwant Singh's Hunt
  • Khan ‘Alam, Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s Falconer and His Ambassador to Iran, with a Sparrow Hawk
  • Matchlock Gun (Torador)
  • Star Tile with a Hound
  • Figure of a Hawk
  • Rustam and the Iranians Hunt in Afrasiyab’s Preserves (painting, recto; text, verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi
  • Sujan Singh of Bikaner and Ladies Shooting Heron from a Terrace
  • Rao Raja Bhoj Singh of Bundi Batters a Leaping Tiger from a Tree
  • Bowl with a Cheetah Standing on the Back of a Horse
  • Rustam and the Iranians Hunt in Afrasiyab’s Preserves (text, recto and verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi
  • Running Prince with Matchlock, Accompanied by Two Attendants
  • Shield with scenes of hunting lions
  • Gushtasp with the Blacksmith Burab (painting, recto; text, verso), folio of a Shahnamah of Firdawsi
  • Helmet with Chain-Mail Guard
  • Story of Kay Khusraw Reviewing his Army, and Tus Leading the Iranians into Turan (text, recto and verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi
  • Kay Khusraw Reviews His Troops (painting, verso; text, recto), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi
  • Princely Tiger Hunt with Hounds
  • Pen Box with Battle and Hunting Scenes
  • The Story of Bahram Gur Hunting (text, recto and verso), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi
  • A Kota Ruler as Krishna's Form Brijnathi Hunts by Moonlight
  • Bahram Gur hunts with Azada (painting, verso; text, recto), folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi
  • Bahram Gur Hunts with Azada (text, recto; painting, verso), illustrated folio from the Great Ilkhanid Shahnama (Book of Kings)
Arthur M. Sackler Museum

Hunting — the pursuit of wild animals for food — is one of humanity’s oldest forms of social organization and the inspiration for some of our earliest efforts at visual art. By uniting lands from Spain to India, the Muslim conquests brought together different practices and thematic associations for the hunt that had developed on three continents over millennia. In India, the Kshattriya, or warrior, class was most receptive to the ideals and activities of the hunt, and Hindu princes commissioned superb depictions of this subject. Through a presentation of paintings, ceramics, decorative arts, and weaponry, The Sport of Kings explores the rich traditions of the hunt in West and South Asia. This exhibition focuses on forms of hunting, such as pursuit of game with cheetah, dogs, and falcons, and on thematic associations among hunting, warfare, and kingship. Organized by Mary McWilliams, Norma Jean Calderwood Curator of Islamic Art; Kimberly Masteller, assistant curator of Islamic and later Indian art; and Rajeshwari Shah, Norma Jean Calderwood Intern in the Department of Islamic and Later Indian Art.