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Orpheus

A Greek mythical hero behind the Mughal throne

One of the most striking buildings in the Red Fort in Delhi is the grand, pillared Diwan-e-Aam.

Diwan-e-Aam Pillars

Diwan-e-Aam Pillars

The Diwan-e-Aam or Hall of Public Audience, was where ordinary people could get an audience with the Emperor. They would come to air their grievances, settle disputes and complaints, and the Emperor would proclaim his judgment.

The Emperor would be seated on a grand throne on the huge marble platform in the centre of the hall (at the back).

Marble Throne

Marble Throne

If you observe the wall at the back of the marble throne, there are some beautiful Pietra Dura motifs. They aren’t clearly visible though, because of the protective glass.

You can see birds on trees, flowers and one very peculiar motif – what seems like a very European-looking youth playing a stringed instrument, with some intently listening animals at his feet!

Pietra Dura with Orpheus

Pietra Dura with Orpheus

We have enlarged that picture for you:

Orpheus

Orpheus*

That is Orpheus – the legendary Greek musical hero whose beautiful singing and playing were supposed to soothe all animals.

But wait – what was a Greek mythical hero doing in the palace of a 17th century Mughal ruler?!

Well, the simple answer is that this was the influence of European artists working under Mughal patronage. But still, why choose such a foreign-looking motif?

This question intrigued one particular European architectural history student – her name is Ebba Koch (and she’s now acclaimed as a leading authority on Mughal architecture) – and she decided to do her entire PhD thesis on this one symbol!

The key message of her thesis is this: If you look closely at the animals in the Orpheus motif, it conveys something surprising – both wild animals and their prey are sitting with each other in peace and harmony.
And that was the message that Shah Jahan wanted to convey to his subjects: that in his reign, everyone – the powerful and the weak – can live with each other in peace.

Think of it as the then ruler assuring his subjects, that with his rule, “Achhe din aane waale hai” 🙂

*Orpheus (Public domain, accessed from British Library, Online Collection: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/addorimss/t/largeimage55392.html)
Images of Gods*

Whats the big deal with this symbol?

Here’s a quiz question. Observe the images on your screen.

Images of Gods*

Images of Gods*

What is one common factor across all these pics?

Another clue: India’s prestigious national civilian awards are named after this, as is the election symbol of the current ruling party.

 

You’re right, that’s way too easy – the lotus flower. But why is it so prominent in these pics, and in Indian life in general?

Ah, time for some botany. The lotus is usually found in muddy ponds and swamps. The flowers or the leaves do not get affected by the wet and muddy environment; instead they offer their beauty and fragrance to everyone, regardless.

This behaviour fascinated the ancients in India and the lotus became their favourite to symbolise certain desired principles and attributes. Especially one particular principle: detachment.

In Hinduism, the theme of detachment features profusely in the Bhagwad Gita (one of Hinduism’s holiest books). And the lotus was a favourite analogy. For example in this succinct verse:

“One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord,

Is unaffected by sins, just as the lotus leaf is untouched by water”

In Buddhism too, the lotus represents purity and renunciation, floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire.

So the lotus (which is now India’s national flower) was not just a big deal to Hindus and Buddhists since ancient times, it was a defining symbol.

Perhaps recognising that importance, and the underlying message, Islamic architects began using the lotus across structures.

And now, observe the top of the Taj’s main dome, or the domes on the mosque or mehman khana on the other side, or most other domes in Islamic monuments… All of them have one distinctive feature – an inverted lotus placed on its apex.

Inverted Lotus on Domes

Inverted Lotus on Domes

Perhaps the next time you see a lotus, you would be reminded of its simple message – of detachment and focus on your karma!

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*Goddess Lakshmi: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ; Buddha By Alexander E. Caddy (The British Library – Online Gallery) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ; Sheshashayee Vishnu: By Ramanarayanadatta astri (http://archive.org/details/mahabharat05ramauoft) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons