Famous Mughal Manuscripts


literal meaning “Tales of a Parrot”, is a 14th-century series of 52 stories in Persian. The work remains well-known largely because of a number of lavishly illustrated manuscripts, especially a version containing 250 miniature paintings was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor, Akbar in the 1550s. The Persian text used was redacted in 14th century AD from an earlier anthology ‘Seventy Tales of the Parrot’ in Sanskrit compiled under the title Śukasaptati (a part of katha literature) dated to the 12th century AD. In India.

The adventure stories narrated by a parrot, night after night, for 52 successive nights, are moralistic stories to persuade his female owner Khojasta not to commit any adulterous act with any lover, in the absence of her husband. She is always on the point of leaving the house to meet her lover, until the loyal parrot detains her by a fascinating story.

Several illustrated manuscript copies survive, the most famous made for the Mughal Emperor Akbar over the five years after he ascended the throne in 1556, by two Persian artists named Mir Sayyid Ali and Abdus Samad working in the court workshop. This is almost entirely in the Cleveland Museum of Art. A second version made for Akbar is now dispersed among several museums, but with the largest part in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, this is thought to date to about 1580.

The Hamzanama or Dastan-e-Amir Hamza

“Adventures of Amir Hamza”) narrates the legendary exploits of Amir Hamza, or Hamza ibn Abdul-Muttalib, an uncle of Muhammad. Most of the stories are extremely fanciful, “a continuous series of romantic interludes, threatening events, narrow escapes, and violent acts”. The Hamzanama chronicles the fantastic adventures of Hamza as he and his band of heroes fight against the enemies of Islam.

The stories, from a long-established oral tradition, were written down in Persian, the language of the courts of the Persianate world, in multiple volumes presumably in the era of Mahmud of Ghazni. In the West the work is best known for the enormous illustrated manuscript commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in about 1562. The text augmented the story, as traditionally told in dastan performances. The dastan (storytelling tradition) about Amir Hamza persists far and wide up to Bengal and Arakan (Burma), as the Mughals controlled those territories. The longest version of the Hamzanama exists in Urdu and contains 46 volumes in approximately over 45,000 pages.

The Akbarnama

Akbarnama which translates to Book of Akbar, the official chronicle of the reign of Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor (r. 1556–1605), commissioned by Akbar himself by his court historian and biographer, Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, called one of the “nine jewels in Akbar’s court” by Mughal writers. It was written in Persian, which is the literary language of the Mughals, and includes vivid and detailed descriptions of his life and times. It followed the Baburnama, the more personal memoir by his grandfather, Babur, founder of the dynasty. Like that, it was produced in the form of lavishly illustrated manuscripts.

The work was commissioned by Akbar, and written by Abul Fazl, one of the Nine Jewels (Hindi: Navaratnas) of Akbar’s royal court. It is stated that the book took seven years to be completed. The original manuscripts contained many miniature paintings supporting the texts, thought to have been illustrated between c. 1592 and 1594 by at least forty-nine different artists from Akbar’s studio, representing the best of the Mughal school of painting, and masters of the imperial workshop, including Basawan, whose use of portraiture in its illustrations was an innovation in Indian art.

After Akbar’s death in 1605, the manuscript remained in the library of his son, Jahangir (r. 1605-1627) and later Shah Jahan (r. 1628–1658). Today, the illustrated manuscript of Akbarnma, with 116 miniature paintings, is at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was bought by the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) in 1896 from Mrs Frances Clarke, acquired by her husband upon his retirement from serving as Commissioner of Oudh (1858–1862). Soon after, the paintings and illuminated frontispiece were removed from the volume to be mounted and framed for display.

The Bāburnāma

“History of Babur” or “Letters of Babur”; alternatively known as Tuzk-e Babri) is the memoirs of Ẓahīr-ud-Dīn Muhammad Bābur (1483–1530), founder of the Mughal Empire and a great-great-great-grandson of Timur. It is written in the Chagatai language, known to Babur as “Turki” (meaning Turkic), the spoken language of the Andijan-Timurids. During Emperor Akbar’s reign, the work was completely translated to Persian, the usual literary language of the Mughal court, by a Mughal courtier, Abdul Rahīm, in AH 998 (1589–90).

Bābur was an educated Timurid prince and his observations and comments in his memoirs reflect an interest in nature, society, politics and economics. His vivid account of events covers not just his own life, but the history and geography of the areas he lived in as well as the people with whom he came into contact. The book covers topics as diverse as astronomy, geography, statecraft, military matters, weapons and battles, plants and animals, biographies and family chronicles, courtiers and artists, poetry, music and paintings, wine parties, historical monument tours as well as contemplation on human nature.

The Bahar-i Danish

(Spring of Knowledge) was a Persian collection of romantic tales adapted from earlier Indian sources by Inayat Allah Kamboh of Lahore in 1061 A.H./1651.

The book was partially translated into English by Alexander Dow in 1768 or 1769, and Jonathan Scott translated it completely in 1799. The Persian text was also lithographed several times in the 19th century. One of the tales in the Bahar-i Danish provided Thomas Moore with the plot of his 1817 verse-novel Lalla-Rookh.

No early illustrated copy of the manuscript has survived, though a pair of 18th-century illustrated manuscripts, from the collections of the Duke of Northumberland and that of Richard Johnson, may reflect 17th-century illustrative traditions.

Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh,

is a work of literature and history, produced in the Mongol Ilkhanate. Written by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (1247–1318) at the start of the 14th century, the breadth of coverage of the work has caused it to be called “the first world history”. It was in three volumes and published in Arabic and Persian versions.

The Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh was one of the grandest projects of the Ilkhanate period, “not just a lavishly illustrated book, but a vehicle to justify Mongol hegemony over Iran”.The text was initially commissioned by Il-Khan Ghazan, who was anxious for the Mongols to retain a memory of their nomadic roots, now that they had become settled and adopted Persian customs. Initially, the work was intended only to set out the history of the Mongols and their predecessors on the steppes, and took the name Taʾrīkh-ī Ghazānī, which makes up one part of the Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh. To compile the History, Rashid al-Din set up an entire precinct at the university of Rab’-e Rashidi in the capital of Tabriz. It contained multiple buildings, including a mosque, hospital, library, and classrooms, employing over 300 workers.

After the death of Ghazan in 1304, his successor Öljaitü asked Rashid al-Din to extend the work, and write a history of the whole of the known world. This text was finally completed in sometime between 1306 and 1311.

After Rashid al-Din’s execution in 1318, the Rab-i-Rashidi precinct was plundered, but the in-process copy that was being created at the time survived, probably somewhere in the city of Tabriz, possibly in the library of Rashid’s son, Ghiyath al-Din. Later, Rashid’s son became Vizier, in his own right, and expanded the restored university precinct of his father. Several of the Jāmiʿ’s compositions were used as models for the later seminal illustrated version of the Shahnameh known as the Demotte Shahnameh.

Padshahnama or Badshah Nama

is a group of works written as the official history of the reign of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Unillustrated texts are known as Shahjahannama, with Padshahnama used for the illustrated manuscript versions. These works are among the major sources of information about Shah Jahan’s reign. Lavishly illustrated copies were produced in the imperial workshops, with many Mughal miniatures. Although military campaigns are given the most prominence, the illustrations and paintings in the manuscripts of these works illuminate life in the imperial court, depicting weddings and other activities.

The most significant work of this genre was written by Abdul Hamid Lahori, the pupil of Akbar’s biographer Abdul Fazal, in two volumes. He could not write the third volume of this genre because of the infirmities of old age.

Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri or Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri or Jahangir-nama

is the autobiography of Mughal Emperor Nur-ud-din Muhammad Jahangir (1569–1627). Also referred to as Jahangirnama, Tuzk-e-Jahangiri is written in Persian, and follows the tradition of his great-grandfather, Babur (1487–1530), who had written the Baburnama; though Jahangir went a step further and besides the history of his reign, he includes details like his reflections on art, politics, and also information about his family.

The Razmnama

British Library Or.12076 is an incomplete illustrated Mughal manuscript of the Razmnama, which is a translation of the Hindu epic Mahabharata written by Naqib Khan, and copied in AH 1007 (1598/99). It contains sections 14–18, the concluding part of the work, with some detached parts. There are 24 full-page Mughal paintings of high quality, all attributed to artists (two artists in three cases). It is the second of the four surviving Mughal illustrated manuscripts, described in the BL catalogue as “Sub-imperial Mughal”.


(‘Stars of the Sciences’, c. 1570 CE), is a manuscript commissioned during the Adil Shahi rulers of Bijapur, India. The manuscript is described as an illustrated encyclopaedia about ancient Indian astrology and astral magic. The book consists of 876 miniature paintings and about 400 paintings of various angels, planets, signs, degrees, Sufic talismans, magical spells, Hindu goddesses, astrological tables and horoscopes, animals and weapons. These are among the earliest examples of the Deccan painting style.

The manuscript’s description in the Chester Beatty Library says that the Nujum al-‘ulum (‘Stars of the Sciences’) is a compendium of Muslim and Hindu beliefs mainly dealing with astrology and magic. Depending on how they are counted, the manuscript contains between four and almost eight hundred illustrations. The folios included here illustrate the northern constellations Andromeda (portrayed as a woman) and the Horse, the Sun in a chariot, the zodiac sign Leo (a lion) with accompanying nakshatras (mansions of the moon) and degrees, Jupiter depicted as an elderly king in procession, and the Universal Ruler (cakravatin) upon his seven-storied throne. The only other copy of this text known was also produced in Bijapur, about a hundred years later, and is also in the Chester Beatty Library.