The Mughal rulers of India (1526–1857) descended from two great ruling lineages, the Timurids and the Mongols. Although known as the Mughals—a derivation of the Persian word Mongol and the source of the English word mogul—they most proudly claimed descent from the legendary leader Timur (Tamerlane), who died in 1405. The Timurids ruled much of Central and West Asia in the fifteenth century and were also regarded as the epitome of cultural sophistication throughout the Islamic world.
The Mughals affirmed their legitimacy as the rightful heirs of the Timurids through artistic, literary, and architectural patronage. They avidly collected Timurid manuscripts, paintings, and calligraphy, while Persian court artists were given important supervisory roles at the Mughal royal atelier.
As Mughal power and influence grew in the sixteenth century, the emperors sought to create a distinctive culture that drew upon India’s diverse communities, knowledge systems, and artistic traditions. The three greatest patrons—the emperors Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan—encouraged their artists, most of whom were born in India, to express a distinctive Mughal ethos in a naturalistic style. Whether embodying the dynamism of Akbar, the refinement of Jahangir, or the opulent formality of Shah Jahan, Mughal manuscripts and paintings open up worlds within worlds. As visual manifestations of each emperor’s political ambitions, personal interests, and ideals of beauty, they delight the mind and astound the eye.