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Mythical Creatures: The Simurgh in Indian Miniature Painting

A Glimpse at the Simurgh in Indian Miniatures

Like the phoenix, we all wish to rise from the ashes. We wish to find victory even after tasting bitter defeat. The mythical bird is an irreplaceable part of modern culture and mythological narratives. But did you know that there are different versions of the phoenix? Some say that the legendary Simurgh is a predecessor of the phoenix. In this blog, we will look at the Simurgh in Indian Miniatures.

The Simurgh in Indian Miniatures: Appearance and Origin

Image credit: The British Library

The Simurgh is a legendary winged bird-like creature that features prominently in Persian art and literature. It may not be a bird at all, as it is sometimes said to be part mammal, and have teeth. Almost always female, the Simurgh has a peacock head, lion claws, and the face of a dog or a human. It is so large that it can carry an entire whale or elephant in its talons.

The Simurg is so ancient that it has seen the world being destroyed three times. It possesses all the knowledge of the world. The Simurg lives near water bodies. It is similar to the phoenix and the Huma bird, but not the same. In some legends, the Simurg lives for 1700 years before dying by bursting into flames.

The Simurgh: One Bird Or Thirty?

Simurgh in Indian Miniatures
The Simurgh Carries Off Baby Elephants. Image credit: Royal Asiatic Collections

In Modern Persian, ‘si’ literally means thirty while ‘murgh’ means bird. So, ‘simurgh’ means thirty birds. Some believe that this meaning is not related to the actual origin of the word. However this peculiar meaning is often referenced in tales that mention the fantastic bird. Some versions state that the Simurgh has thirty colours or is made up of thirty birds, like a composite animal.

The Simurgh often made appearances in Indian and Persian poetry and literature. It was represented as a companion and advisor to all great kings, as well as an upholder of the natural order. In Sufism, caged birds are considered a metaphor for the soul. Death frees the soul and allows it to experience infinite possibilities. Birds were also used to portray lovers.

Simurgh in Indian Miniatures
Image credit: The British Museum

Another Mughal Miniature features the bird in subdued colour. Still, its brilliant orange flames burn through the sepia and monotone shades. The red heads of Sarus cranes provide much-needed contrast and keep the colour palette consistent, while breaking up the monotony.

This Simurgh viciously attacks a gaja-simha, or a ‘rukh’, an animal that is half lion and half elephant. The Rukh is said to be an enemy of the elephant. Interspersed between the fleeing elephants are various other birds, like ducks and cranes. The likeness of the elephants is very realistic and well-represented.

The Flight of The Simurgh in Indian Miniatures

Basawan. The Flight of the Simurgh. ca. 1590. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The above painting shows a young man in the Simurgh’s claws. The trepid waters below them teem with fish, a tortoise, and a lone makara. The makara is an aquatic animal native to Indian mythology, and a motif usually seen in architecture. The makara drives away evil spirits and represents the land and the water.

This painting seems to depict a story by the Persian poet Nizami. The protagonist is rescued by the Simurgh, who picks him out of danger and carries him to an unknown, paradise-like land. However, the Simurgh holds two people in its beak, a detail not present in the original story. This page, now unbound, was once part of an album presented to the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.

Though of Persian origin, this tale captures the Indian zeal for heroic and adventurous tales. Through this piece, the Mughal court painter Basawan demonstrates a keen sense of perspective and attention to detail.

Image credit: Aga Khan Museum

On the reverse side of this painting, we see some exquisite nasta’liq calligraphy by none other than the artist Muhammad Husayn. The Emperor Akbar had given him the title of ‘Zarin Qalam’ or ‘Golden Pen’ due to his incredible calligraphic skill.

The Simurgh in The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity

Mughal Miniature. Image credit: The British Museum

The above painting is likely to be an illustration of the Ottoman poet Lami’i Celebi’s ‘Serefu’l-Insan’. This story is also called The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity or The Letter of the Animals due to a later translation. In this story, all the animals of the world decide to oppose the injustices that humankind had imposed on them. They complained to the King of Spirits, who ordered an investigation into the matter.

Ultimately, each group of animals chooses a spokesperson who presents their thoughts in court. The main reason given by the humans regarding their injustice was that only humans had souls and were perfect beings. Since God had given them all the creatures of the Earth to use as they wished, those who defied them were defying God’s will.

Simurgh in Indian Miniatures
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

After a series of arguments at the court, the King of Spirits concludes that the humans were at fault and must treat the animals with kindness. Should they begin to act selfishly again, all the creatures of the earth would disappear, and great calamity would befall the humans.

This story illustrates the classic Sufi tendency to use metaphors to explain the multifaceted nature of spiritualism, the divine, and the self.

The Simurgh Outside of Miniatures

The Simurgh is also featured in architectural and carpet designs. The Emperor Jahangir had the image of a Simurgh in the Kala Burj tower. The Mughal kings were familiar with Persian mythology because of their unique ancestry. But when the Simurgh started being seen in public places, through architecture or carpet designs, the knowledge of the bird left the royal palace and reached the masses.

The Simurgh: An Unexpected Appearance

Deccan miniature. Hyderabad, 1770-75. Image credit: National Museum, New Delhi

The Buraq, or Al-Buraq is a mythological creature associated with Islamic lore. It is said that the prophet Muhammad rode on this creature during the isra, or his journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. In certain versions of the story, he rides the buraq on his journey to the heavens.

In the above Deccan Miniature, the Buraq appears in all her glory. The artist interprets her unique form as a composite animal and gives her a unique yet majestic appearance. From the snakes as her feet to the dragon tail, her bizarre appearance makes perfect sense. But below her neck perches a red bird with flaming feathers spreading out in all directions. Since the phoenix doesn’t appear in Indian mythology, it is safe to assume that the flaming bird is a Simurgh.

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By Melissa D’Mello, a Content Writer at Rooftop

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