Looking more like the work of a jeweler than a painter, this late-Mughal painting is covered in gold. The narrow margin that frames the painting is pure gold. The emperor sits on a massive throne of gold studded with emeralds, rubies and pearls and surmounted by lotuses, which are probably enamel on gold. High above the throne is a canopy of cloth-of-gold held aloft by tent-poles covered in sheets of gold. At the emperor’s feet are golden dishes with golden covers; the platform that the throne stands upon has a golden facing and is surrounded by a railing made of gold. On the floor are silk bags brocaded with gold which must contain coins of gold.

There are jewel-encrusted hilts and scabbards of daggers and swords, golden standards fluttering pennants of gold, gold turban cloths, gold trappings on the elephant and a golden bridle on the horse, gold trumpets piercing the sky, and golden bundles piled up in the arcade behind. Practically every material thing in this painting is touched with gold.

The sumptuous objects that surround the ruler are not mere boasts about his wealth. Their rich materials remind us of divine presence in our material world. It was the “fostering glance of the sun” that infused black rocks with precious stones and golden ore, Abul Fazl tells us, and kings surround themselves with “external splendour because they consider it to be an image of Divine Glory”.

To the brilliance of these objects, the painter adds other effulgences – the glow of the sun in the sky and the circlet of flickering rays escaping the halo of the king. Unlike the gilded objects in the painting that merely reflect light, however, these two – the emperor and the sun – are themselves radiant and shed light. In Mughal theories of kingship, light is the animating force of the universe; as the earth receives its light from the sun, so the king receives his light from God. This divine light, called farr, suffuses the body of the king and becomes visible as an aura.

All around the central figure are signs of his sovereignty. He sits on a throne, of course, but the presence of the fly-whisk, the five standard-bearers, the musicians playing the naubat music from the musician’s gallery or naubat-khana above the gate were all privileges reserved for the emperor. Their prominence in this painting underlines the fact that we are seeing a coronation scene. The newly anointed emperor receives gifts from a saintly old man clad in green. There is a dagger on the tray, and a sword, and an inkwell perhaps, but the ruler has picked out two rubies.

This may be significant. According to one legend, rubies did not come to earth via the beneficent gaze of the sun. They are the crystallisation of the spilt blood of a murdered and unavenged king. In the legend, the headless body of the dead king lay under a whirlpool, leaking blood that turned into torrents of rubies. Until the king’s son could come of age and avenge him and thus put his dead father to rest, the body was tended by Khwaja Khizr. Khizr, also called the Pir-e-Sabz or the Green Saint, is a mythical figure who is immeasurably old but will never die, since he has discovered the Fountain of Life. He is often shown near or in water, sometimes riding a fish, and is associated with the forces of fertility and life. He offers protection to those who lose their way or walk on dangerous paths.

A puzzle for art historians

Shah Jahan’s artists depicted him with Khwaja Khizr many times, with the saint usually offering that emperor symbolic gifts: a globe, a cup of the water of life, or a royal sword. Khwaja Khizr is in our painting too, that was made half a century after Shah Jahan’s death. He is the ancient man in green clothes who is offering the new emperor his new regalia on a tray. But who is the emperor whose investiture Khwaja Khizr has come to bless?

This is a question that has puzzled art historians. An inscription identifies him as Azim-ud-din. This was the name of the second son of Bahadur Shah I, himself the second son and successor of Aurangzeb. Born in 1664, Azim-ud-din was 43 years old in 1707 when he was given the title Azim-us-Shan Bahadur. His father came to the throne a few days afterwards. Azim-us-Shan was the most powerful, the wealthiest, and most able of Bahadur Shah’s sons and was his heir-apparent. He was by his father’s deathbed in an encampment near Lahore, and was immediately proclaimed emperor in the royal camp.

This was on the February 29, 1712. Within days his three brothers had combined forces against him. Although Azim-us-Shan had more forces and much more money than they, tactical errors ended in his rout. On the March 18, 1712, his army was in tatters when he entered the battlefield. Then, it seemed, even the heavens turned against him.

“It so happened that a high wind sprang up and the sand from the Ravi banks rose in clouds,” says an historian. “Everything was blotted from view.” A lucky shot “struck the trunk of the elephant on which Prince Azim-us-shan was riding. The elephant turned and fled towards the Ravi… Such was the terror of the elephant that it outstripped the dust itself had raised… Suddenly the elephant disappeared over the high bank overlooking the stream: when the pursuers reached the edge and looked down, all they saw was the heaving mud and sand, from which issued the most frightful roaring. The elephant and the prince had been swallowed up by a quicksand.”

In 18 days, Azim-us-Shan ascended the throne and sank into the mud. His brother Jahandar Shah went on to kill the other brothers who had allied with him, and seized the crown for himself.

Art historians ask: Where in these 18 days was the opportunity for Azim-us-Shan to arrange a darbar, amass gifts and tribute, line up elephants and horses, command the naubat, dress in finery and sit in state on a throne? More pertinently, where was the time to commission this painting, and once Azim-us-Shan was dead, who would support an artist to labour over it for the months and months required for a work of this kind? Since Azim-us-Shan’s time on the throne was so turbulent and so brief, scholars have questioned whether this shows him at all, despite the inscription and even though the portrait matches other depictions of the same prince.

A clue to solve this mystery lies unnoticed in the background. Behind the high walls of the enclosure, a landscape unfurls. Let us “read” it from right to left, for that is the reading order for the Persian script. First, we see a brilliant sky behind the naubat khana, where the last rays of the sun light up clouds and make them iridesce. Leftward, the light fades. The hills in the centre are in twilight and by the time we reach the right edge a storm has broken, clouds are heavy, and the sky is pitch black.

This meteorological drama reprises the brief flare of glory and the shocking extinction that marked the last weeks of Azim-us-Shan’s life.

Obviously then, the painting is a retrospection, made when all the details of the sorry story are known. Who would have commissioned it but Azim-us-Shan’s son, who swore revenge when he heard of his father’s death, gathered allies, marched upon the capital and within months had the emperor Jahandar strangled and kicked to death, beheaded and thrown in the open to rot? This son was Farrukh Siyar, and he held on to his throne for seven years until he too was blinded, strangled, beaten and stabbed to death.

Farrukh Siyar is no hero of history. But this painting reminds us that great art doesn’t have to be connected to good men. Probably the finest and most elaborate painting produced in his reign, it was very likely the work of the artist Bhavani Das, who is believed to have been the head of Bahadur Shah’s painting workshop and who stayed in the Mughal court until the end of Farrukh Siyar’s reign, when he left Delhi for Kishangarh to lead the atelier there.

Before Farrukh Siyar came to the throne, Bhavani Das had already shown Bahadur Shah seated on what must be the same lotus-topped throne, and made several other paintings that show Bahadur Shah with his father or his siblings in majestically gilded settings. He may have made or supervised portraits of Farrukh Siyar as well, though none compare in precision or poetry with the coronation portrait of Azim-us-Shan.

In this, probably his last masterwork at the Mughal court, the artist encrusts the surface with glitter and pomp but finds an extraordinarily subtle way to turn distant nature into painful allegory. Even the rubies that pass between Azim-us-Shan and Khizr are perhaps metaphorical, alluding to the legend of royal blood spilt, and eventually avenged. In a painting that appears to be the finely made but conventional rendering of a grand celebration, Bhavani Das allows a son to limn the memory of his father, and to tell a tale of what could have been, what should have been, and what was not to be.

Kavita Singh is a professor of art history at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.