Mughal Emperors and the Imperial Hunt

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    There is something deeply poetic about the synchrony of man and beast locked in battle with each other, relying on their wits, speed and sheer cunning to outwit the other. When the inevitable moment arrives, time stops as victory and defeat are juxtaposed in the most delicate balance. Then, in a split second, the fate of hunter and hunted is decided.

    But, in Mughal times, the battle of man and beast went beyond pure sport. Hunting, no matter how violent and brutal, was an extension of empire building, kingship and sovereignty. The Imperial Hunt was both a political as well as a military strategy that rulers used frequently to test their own limits and pleasures. Why, it was sometimes even a tool of diplomacy.

    The Mughal Emperors used hunting or shikar as a royal privilege, to exercise authority over their subjects and the natural world.

    Ruling vast territories of the subcontinent and maintaining tight control over their subjects was a given for all rulers, kings and emperors. But they derived true pleasure and sheer indulgence from the ‘imperial hunt’, as it gave them a chance to show off their hunting prowess.

    These Emperors maintained detailed accounts of their heroic exploits and they are great sources of information. These accounts focus mainly on the fauna of Hindustan, and animals like the lion, cheetah and tiger are given pride of place. The Mughal chronicles also talk about the capturing of elephants and hunting the black buck, nilgais, deer, buffalo and small birds.

    Emperor Jahangir (r. 1605 – 1627), author of the Jahangirnama, meticulously made notes of every hunt he did in this work. He claimed that from the age of 12 until his 50th year, he had hunted 28,532 animals including the big cats, and 13, 964 birds, a feat, no doubt.

    It is not just the Mughal chronicles that give us detailed descriptions of the Imperial Hunt, but also paintings that each Mughal Emperor commissioned of himself while on these jungle expeditions.

    Triumph over Evil

    The thrill of the hunt provided an adrenaline rush that had the Emperors hooked. Apart from casting themselves as heroes who could slay the fiercest of beasts, they believed that by hunting, they were destroying the forces of evil that surrounded them. The majestic, big cats – tigers and lions – were especially challenging to hunt and were therefore their most valuable quarry.

    For the Mughals, there was also a cultural connection linked to their Mongol and Timurid ancestry. In the Timurid tradition, hunting lions was an important ritual to formalise any kind of authority. The Mughals also believed that killing a lion was a lucky omen. Conversely, if the lion escaped during the hunt, trouble would befall the Empire.

    Becoming a Warrior

    The Mongol tradition of hunting was about bringing out the warrior in an Emperor, and this was amply represented in Mughal paintings. The hunting method of the Mongols, called ‘Qamargah’, was like a battle plan. Hundreds of men were employed as ‘beaters’, whose job it was to trap the animal in a circle and lead it to an area encircled by nets or fences. Once trapped, the animal is then forced to succumb to the authority of the Emperor, who was seated on a horse or an elephant and assisted by trained cheetahs and dogs.

    The risks were considerable but the Emperor could not afford to bed faint-hearted. The hunt and all the rituals that surrounded it were witnessed by members of his court and the royal artists who travelled with him. They used the hunt as an opportunity to hail the Emperor in their paintings, as a grand hero who had conquered an evil force

    A Diplomatic Exercise

    The excitement of the hunt and the dance of death pursued by the hunters were also an extension of a diplomatic bond that the Mughal Emperors were trying to build. This was especially true vis-à-vis the Rajput clans that the Mughals wooed and forged alliances with.

    The Rajputs were essentially a warrior clan and the hunt, therefore, appealed to their sensibilities, perhaps more than it did to any other community. Simply put, the Rajputs considered hunting a necessity for all warriors going into battle.

    Abu’l Fazl, historian and chronicler of Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556 – 1605), believed that the Imperial Hunt was a sign of good governance and an effort made by the Emperor to win the hearts of his subjects. He writes in the Ain-i-Akbari authored by him: “At this time, the lord of the universe in accordance with his noble ways was continually outwardly engaged in hunting while inwardly he walked with God and was employed in the capturing of souls.”

    A Chance to Look Inward

    Emperor Akbar also used the Imperial Hunt as an occasion to meet ascetics and mendicants and interact with them. There is a miniature painting of him falling into a trance while on a hunting expedition in Punjab. This is similar to the stories of many historical characters who discover the truth of ‘true self’ in a forest.

    Hunting allowed these royals to break with protocol and interact with people who had shed their materialistic aspirations. Did royal customs and practices prove tiresome for the Emperor? Did they secretly envy the lives of ascetics and mendicants? Akbar did use these interactions to make changes in his own life. He abstained from meat for certain periods and forbade the killing of animals to please his Hindu subjects.

    His son Jahangir, known in Mughal history as one of the most enthusiastic hunters of his time, was forced to respect his father vow. However, he did break it and went back to hunting cheetahs or, in extreme circumstances, asked his wife Nur Jahan to shoot in his place.

    An Elaborate Affair

    The Imperial Hunt was always organised in open forests and miles and miles away from the royal capital, making these expeditions a month-long event. A huge retinue of people accompanied the Emperor while on a hunt. Along with his courtiers and noblemen, the harem too was in attendance.

    On one expedition, Akbar was accompanied by 4,000 soldiers. Massive tents were erected to house everyone, who along with the Emperor enjoyed all the comforts of the palace in the middle of the forest.

    Other pleasurable pursuits, such as cock-fights and the duelling of rams and pigeons were organized to keep the Emperor entertained in case he ever got bored.

    Falcons were trained for the purpose of hunting, which was hugely popular in Akbar’s time. It was the speed and sharpness of the bird that made it a huge favourite for hunting expeditions. Akbar had over 1,000 trained cheetahs in his retinue; they were great hunting companions. It is said Akbar promoted one of his cheetahs as ‘Chief of Cheetahs’ in a ceremony marked by the beating of drums and great pomp and show. This was all because the animal had helped catch a deer that Akbar had set his eyes on!

    If the hunt was the centrepiece of the expedition, the feast that such an expedition entailed came a close second. The hunting grounds were filled with an assortment of wild beasts and fowl that eventually found their way into the rather expansive menu designed for the Emperor. It is said that on a hunt that extended up to a month, at least 30-40 dishes were laid out for the Emperor. Of course, he would not taste them all but they had to be presented before him anyway. After all, palace pleasures extended even to the open forest; wherever the Emperor went, entertainment of all kinds followed.

    Shah Jahan Hunting Lions

    The Qamargah method of hunting was inspired by the Mongol tradition of hunting, where hundreds of beaters were employed to drive the Royal game into a circular enclosure, to be killed by the hunter. This depicted in a painting commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan (r. 1628 – 58). It is titled Shahjahan Hunting Lions At Burhanpur in the Padshahnama, which documents the official history of Emperor Shah Jahan’s reign. The painting depicts a hunt conducted by the Emperor in Burhanpur, in present-day Madhya Pradesh. In his late 30s, Shah Jahan is shown hunting along with his teenage sons, who like him are also seated on elephants.

    At the bottom of the painting is a netted enclosure, which probably accommodated members of the court who witnessed the hunt. The top half of the painting shows Shah Jahan confronting a lion and a lioness, who seem to be protecting their cubs. This very direct confrontation between man and beast is very symbolic of what all battles in history are about. Hunting of lions was a powerful omen, and killing them ensured victory in all battles that were to come.

    Nur Jahan: A Super-Slayer

    Hunting was not solely a man’s prerogative to assert his authority over his subjects. Some royal women too stamped their authority themselves via this elaborate and dangerous ritual. One of them was Empress Nur Jahan, wife of Emperor Jahangir, who immersed herself in this heady addiction.

    Nur Jahan is hailed as a feminist icon and a powerful woman in 17th century India. Her contribution to art, architecture, music and fashion rivalled the contribution made by some of her male counterparts. Nur Jahan was an excellent shot, possibly even better than Jahangir, and there are stories about her bravery and her pursuit of a ‘man-eating tiger’ who had ‘terrorised’ a village. It is said that she shot the animal dead with a single shot from her musket, while sitting on an elephant.

    Jahangir trusted her skills as a hunter so much that she accompanied him on all his hunts. The Historian Ruby Lal in her book Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan (2018) aptly says: “Nur Jahan was living in the land of tigers, and her skills as a hunter helped her immensely while ruling an Empire.”

    Since hunting was extremely symbolic and so deeply embedded in Mughal culture, it was widespread and wiped out a large number of animals. But it is the tales of the hunter that are immortalised in art, architecture and folklore; the voices of the hunted remain smothered in legends of the Imperial Hunt.


    Samyukta Ninan is an Educator from Delhi who has a deep interest in the tangible and intangible heritage of India. An avid reader and a heritage walker, she has combined her interest in visual and performing arts with her passion for writing .
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