Riddle time: what do you get if you cross the story of mediaeval Indian art with the prehistory of robotics?

Answer: A painting called Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas, which features possibly the first visual representation of an automaton in South Asian art.

To a lay viewer, the robot may seem an anachronistic curiosity, the unmistakable clue of a time-travelling replicant crashing a 400-year-old royal party. The truth is more straightforward – involving travel only through time zones – but no less fascinating, revealing the intersections of international commerce, imperial self-representation and reinterpretations of foreign technology.

The existence of mechanical marvels in the mediaeval world isn’t surprising. Though not as sophisticated as today’s humanoid robots, automata – or at least the idea of them – have a history going back to Homeric antiquity. In South Asia, literary and technical descriptions of self-moving machines appear in a corpus of Sanskrit texts at the end of the first millennium CE. At roughly the same time, Al-Jazari’s illustrated manuscript Kitab fi ma’rifat al-hiyal al-handasiya (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices) became influential across the Islamic world in West Asia. The first European automaton recorded in India seems to have been in 1597, at the court of Akbar. In his book Art on the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, art historian Gauvin Bailey reports that the Jesuit priest Jéronimo Xavier sourced from the Provincial at Goa “an ape which squirted water from its eyes and mouth, and above it a bird which sang mysteriously” to display at the Christmas celebrations in Lahore.

Painted in 1620, Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas shows the Mughal badshah in conversation with his Safavid counterpart, flanked by two courtiers – his brother-in-law Asaf Khan and his ambassador to Persia, Khan Alam. The dramatis personae are surrounded by a variety of props sourced from around the world. Among the exotica inventoried by Sharon Littlefield in her doctoral dissertation The Object in the Gift: Embassies of Jahangir and Shah Abbas (1999) are Venetian reliquaries, a Chinese cup, a dagger with a walrus ivory hilt, an Italian table and, intriguingly, a “European drinking vessel (Diana riding a stag)”. This last item, held by Khan Alam in his left hand, is a gilded bronze statuette of the Roman hunting goddess Diana astride a stag atop an oval base. The figure seems to be gripping the stag’s antler, her upper body slightly atwist as she looks back mid-trot. But there seems to be no way to drink from it. What exactly was this unusual libatory artefact, fashioned into the shape of an ancient hunting deity?

Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas, Bishan Das, 1620.

On closer inspection by art historians who weren’t fooled by the object’s lack of outward mechanical attributes, it turned out to be not a static article, but an automatic device of a type produced in the early modern period in what was then the Holy Roman Empire of the Germanic Nation. Today, Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas resides at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery in Washington DC. It was the Freer Gallery’s chief curator in the mid-20th century, the German-American art historian Richard Ettinghausen, who first noted the Diana automaton in his description of the miniature in Paintings of the Sultans and Emperors of India in American Collections (1961). Tracing the origins of this kind of article to 16th century Augsburg, he described it as movable, with wheels at its base. Furthermore, he said, the head of the stag would have been detachable so that the beast’s hollow body could be filled with wine. In her summary of a 1991/1992 essay by Lorenz Seelig (Die Gruppe der Diana auf dem Hirsch in der Walters Art Gallery) in the Walters Art Museum’s journal about one such mechanical Diana in the institute’s collection, then curator Joaneath Spicer estimated its base’s rotation diameter to be about 30 inches. Apparently meant to serve as a kind of clockwork turntable for feasters at court indulging in drinking games, the “automaton was to be wound up and sent rolling over to a guest”, presumably obliging the individual before whom it stopped to take a swig.

As equipped for mobility as this German curiosity was, no amount of winding up could have spurred Diana and her stag through the 6,000-km transcontinental journey to Agra. So how did the automaton make its Indian debut in 17th-century Mughal court? Jessica Keating, a historian of European visual culture, takes up this question in her book Animating Empire: Automata, the Holy Roman Empire and The Early Modern World (2018). She notes that 16th- and 17th-century Augsburg was the exclusive manufacturing site of “self-propelled mimetic objects…designated Uhrwerke (clockworks)...Their movements were driven by a collection of gears, wheels and springs…typically wound up by someone in a position of power”. Unique to their realm and yet circulating abroad as gifts and merchandise, the Uhrwerke became a metonym for the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. As Keating writes, “The automata could stand in for the emperor and the empire.”

Strange and wonderful

In a chapter titled Metamorphosis at the Mughal Court, dedicated to Jahangir’s Diana, Keating proposes one of the likeliest routes by which the mechanical goddess and her stag made it to India and what their presence in a Jahangiri painting possibly signified. The initial propulsion that set the Jahangiri Diana on her journey must have been provided by the predominant mercantile families of Augsburg, particularly the Fuggers, who sponsored Portuguese expeditions in the 16th century. Participating in a robust Euro-South Asian network of which – as the Jesuits’ procurements attest to – Goa was a major node by the end of the 1500s, agents of these eminent German traders came to India to export goods back to their home continent. At the same time, they started “trafficking German printed materials and curiosities to the subcontinent”. One of the Fuggers’ agents, Ferdinand Cron, began operating independently in Goa in 1591, after the German company stopped doing business with the Portuguese government. He traded with merchants having direct connections to the imperial court, such as the Flemish gem trader Jacques de Coutre who, in 1619, presented Jahangir with “an automaton of a ship from Augsburg”, establishing evidence of a supply chain linking wares from that city to Agra.

By the mid-17th century, the visual and material culture of Europeans was not unfamiliar to the Mughals. However, they remained best known for the marvellous curiosities they brought to the shores and durbars of Hindustan, such as the Father Jerome’s “automatic” ape. In his essay Taking Stock of the Franks: South Asian views of Europeans and Europe, 1500-1800, historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam asserts that Indians considered the Franks “purveyors of the strange and wonderful (ajā’ib-o-gharā’ib)”. Some of these firangistāni curiosities made it to the badshahi pictorial record – a pipe organ, a North American turkey, cartographic globes, an hourglass – reoriented to the Mughal perspective and reinscribed with new, even subversive, meanings. The Diana automaton was such an ajā’ib, an object type unlike anything produced within the Mughal empire. It must be seen in conversation with other post-Renaissance mechanical wonders that turned up at the Mughal durbar, namely organs and clocks which, as Mika Natif points out in her book Mughal Occidentalism, “share similar operating mechanisms” to automata. Examples include a musical arghanūn (organ) beheld by Akbar’s courtier ’Abd Al-Qadir Badayuni in the late 1570s and the clocks brought to Jahangir by the English around 1616 – and, most interestingly, by the Persians.

Though not mentioned in the Jahangirnama, in his book The Indian Response to European Technology and Culture (A.D. 1498-1707), historian AJ Qaisar points to a gift of “five clocks’ (not of Persian workmanship)” by Shah Abbas. There is thus a chance, as Keating too acknowledges, that the Diana automaton may have entered the Mughal durbar as a gift from Shah Abbas himself. As Littlefield notes in her dissertation, the importance of gifting in mediaeval and early modern diplomacy is obvious in light of its continued practice today: “Whether to curry favor, facilitate political ends, or to ensure the continuation of peaceful relations, gifts presented and received were an essential component of an embassy.” The painting itself gives us reason to at least consider this possibility – the falcon perched on Khan Alam’s gloved right hand could well be a reference to the Persian ukna or white falcon which Jahangir notes in his memoirs as a gift from Shah Abbas. Could not his left hand too be carrying yet another marker of respect from a competitor? Funnily enough, it is through a mention of diplomatic gifting that Keating directs us to a tentative glimpse of the Diana automaton’s actual presence in India. In a 1616 report by Thomas Roe, the English diplomat to Jahangir’s court, his list of “Fitt presents from the King” James Stuart to the badshah includes the cryptic note, “Diana this yere gave great content” – perhaps a suggestion regarding the sort of gift that might please the emperor?

International influence

Jahangir’s sense of whimsy is visible in the art he commissioned, some of which were depictions of his political dreams. As delightfully profuse as it is, the scene of him enjoying Shah Abbas’s company is entirely fictional. The two kings never met. The painting is in the best tradition of allegorical representation through which the Mughals sought “to give abstract concepts or performed gestures of ideal kingship a pictorial expression”, in the words of art historian Ebba Koch in her essay The Symbolic Possession of the World: European Cartography in Mughal Allegory and History Painting. Through symbolic images deploying various polysemic motifs in service of their political vision, the badshahs made a claim to greatness at various levels – terrestrial, cosmic and spiritual. In order to speculate about the role that the Diana automaton played in this particular allegory of Jahanagir entertaining Shah Abbas, it’s important to take a brief look at the context of its composition.

In 1605, relations between the Persian and Hindustani empires were strained in the wake of the attempted siege of the Mughals’ frontier fortress of Qandahar by Safavid troops (the Mughals triumphed.) Against the backdrop of territorial conflict, the two empires exchanged embassies in the mid-17th century ostensibly as a way to maintain peace but equally to exert soft power on the matter of Qandahar. The Iranian emissary Yadgar Ali arrived in Agra in 1611 and Khan Alam accompanied him back in 1613, along with a thousand Mughal courtiers. Among them was the artist Bishan Das who, in Jahangir’s words, “was without equal in drawing likenesses”. It was Bishan Das who painted the imaginary tableau featuring his patron in the company of his host. What was Jahangir trying to articulate about his sovereignty in response to Shah Abbas’s designs on Qandahar? And what role did the automaton play in the narrative?

Another allegory from this period, this one by the artist Abu’l Hasan – Jahangir Embraces Shah Abbas (1618) – might furnish a clue. Encircled by a huge solunar halo garnished by Europeanate cherubs, the emperors embrace, Jahangir surmounting a lion and smaller, darker Shah Abbas standing deferentially on a lamb, both beasts lying side by side. They are atop a Western-style globe which had been recently introduced to the Mughals, with the lion sprawled across Timurid Central Asia. Historian Sumathi Ramaswamy’s essay Conceit of the Globe in Mughal Visual Practice reveals how Jahangir establishes semiotic superiority in this ostensible picture of fraternal affection. The picture speaks to Jahangir’s strategic use of Western globes and maps to emphasise both the significance of his dominion and the truth of his regnal name – “World Seizer”. This kind of global might is hinted at in Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas too, albeit in the subtler form of rare exotica such as the Diana automaton.

Jahangir Embraces Shah Abbas, Abu’l Hasan, 1618. Credit: St. Petersburg Album/Freer Gallery of Art/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

The numerous foreign articles ornamenting the fantasy encounter connote opulence and international influence – all the way to the land of the firangs – serving as evidence of the Great Mughal as cosmocrat. If the Diana automaton were Shah Abbas’s present, within the logic of the allegorical paintings, she may represent the Safavid ruler’s deferential regard for his Mughal counterpart, who wrested Qandahar back. In her article Approaching Diplomatic and Courtly Gift-giving in Europe and Mughal India: Shared Practices and Cultural Diversity, historian Kim Siebenhüner points out that the old and knotty concept of pīshkash, common to both Safavid and Mughal terminologies, blurs the line between gift and tribute. Thus, the clockwork Diana, whether acquired from far firang places or received as a pīshkash from a competitor brought low, only accentuated the World Seizer’s omnipotence.

This sovereign authority is further perceivable by Jahangir’s contemporaries who would have recognised the object as an automaton, needing to be, in Keating’s words, “wound up by someone in a position of power”. We see a similar conceit in one other Mughal painting that teases clockwork automaticity in the shape of a suggestively painted aperture. Natif draws our attention to a detail in Abu’l Hasan’s Darbar of Jahangir (1615): “Below the king’s little toe, a black mark in the shape of a keyhole is clearly seen. The keyhole is strategically placed on the Indian subcontinent, while the key to the globe hangs discreetly from the emperor’s sash.” This device, she contends, resembles real ones also made in Germany. In this case, the badshah’s prowess dangles on his person, representing his ability to make things move literally and metaphorically – certainly Hindustan, even the world, perhaps. However, Jahangir’s Diana automaton bears no feature suggesting movement (it is not placed on a surface, nor are its wheels and keyhole visible) or removement (the detachability of the stag’s heading is not made apparent). What does this erasure of the automaton’s machinic and libatory apparatus signify? Perhaps it is, as Keating suggests, that the exotic origin of the object itself was its main value, its aja’ib features irrelevant. Or perhaps, even sans key, the vital, vigorous presence of the emperor itself indicates an impelling force, controlling the momentum of the automaton and adversary (and shikari and falcon?)

In Europe, the wind-up wonders and aja’ib automata that moved through early modern empires gave way to Enlightenment advances in science and technology. In South Asia, the next noteworthy automaton was Tipu Sultan’s Tiger, made in 1795, mauling an East India firangi. As for Qandahar, after a series of battles over decades, it ultimately fell to the Safavids in 1653. The world moved on to new ages and orders. But in the painted meeting of Jahangir and Shah Abbas, just like his clockwork Diana, it was propelled by the badshah’s inexorable will.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.