Jewels and Horses: How the Horsehead Hilts combined two royal interests of the Mughals

Shrey MauryaShrey Maurya

Shrey (she/her) holds a bachelor’s in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, and a master’s in Visual Art from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She also holds a diploma in South Asian Painting from Jnanapravaha, Mumbai. Her research interests include miniature painting, Buddhist art, handloom textiles, as well as jewellery, perfume and cultures of adornment in the Indian subcontinent. At the MAP Academy, she manages the team, as well as all the content produced under the Encyclopedia of Art and its associated projects. She works from multiple locations.

Expertly carved to resemble a horse’s head and inlaid with precious gemstones, these khanjars (dagger) hilts, or the horsehead hilts, date back to the late Mughal period (seventeenth–eighteenth centuries). The Mughal kings and their ministers were great patrons of the arts, with an appreciation for everyday objects made of valuable materials, often used to project power. Therefore, the hilts combine two interests of the Mughals — horses and jewelled objects 

In the Mughal period, horses were of enormous military and economic significance, especially as the army’s cavalry was instrumental in expanding the empire. Horses from present-day Iran, Turkey, Tibet, the Middle-East and Central Asia were traded in fairs, with the Arabian and Turkemene breeds being especially prized. Miniature paintings in manuscripts such as the Baburnama, dating back to the sixteenth century, contain illustrations of horses in numerous military and ceremonial contexts. Hilts carved to resemble horses first appeared in the Padshahnama, an illustrated early-seventeenth century manuscript recording Emperor Shah Jahan’s reign.

Likely made in karkhana’s, or imperial ateliers, where multiple expert lapidaries worked, these particular hilts were carved out of precious materials: green and white nephrite (also known as jade), ivory, silver and crystal. The embellishments — of gold, ruby, emerald and quartz — indicate that these daggers were likely owned by either royalty or nobility. The daggers, approximately five to six inches long, would have fit into a belt or sit comfortably in the hands of the owner. Altogether, they are a reminder that naturalistic representation was not just admired but also developed significantly, and to fascinating results, by artists under Mughal patronage. 

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