Birds, Beasts, and Botanicals

Babur made careful observations of the flora and fauna he encountered on the Indian subcontinent. Some eighty years later, artists working for Babur’s grandson Akbar created these illustrations to accompany the text.

Of the coconut tree in the first painting, Babur describes its leaves, notes its economic importance, and rates the flavor of coconut water as “not bad.” The second painting has been separated from its text, but we can see that the painter has depicted black ibis, merganser ducks, spotted doves, and hoopoes among other, more stylized birds. Akbar’s artists enriched both scenes by depicting birds in male–female pairs, a common theme in Mughal illuminated designs that often appear in margins, confirming their interest in documenting the world.

Birds at Baran
Probably from a Baburnama
India, Mughal dynasty, late 16th century
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Freer Gallery of Art

In the words of Babur…

Babur describes the cultural and economic importance of the coconut tree:

“The coconut is Arabicized by the Arabs into narjil. The people of Hindustan call it naliyar, probably a popular error. The fruit of the coconut is the “Indian walnut” from which ladles are made. The larger ones are made into ghichak bowls. The tree looks exactly like a date palm, but the coconut branch has more leaves, and the leaves are shinier. Just as there is a green husk on top of the walnut, there is a green husk on top of the coconut, but the coconut’s husk is quite fibrous. Ropes for all boats and ships are made from this coconut fiber, as is cord for seaming boats. When the coconut fiber is stripped, there are revealed three holes arranged in a triangle on the nut—two hard and one soft. The soft one is easily pierced with pressure. Before the kernel sets, there is liquid inside. One can pierce the hole and drink the liquid, which does not have a bad taste—rather like liquified date cheese.”

Thackston, Wheeler M., trans. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor. New York: Oxford University Press in association with Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1996. 347.