Rooftop – Where India Inspires Creativity

Learn Indian art online

Uncovering the Rich History of the Buraq in Indian Art

The Buraq in Indian Art

All legendary beings are born this way. First, a whisper, a fleeting mention of a fabled appearance. Then, the questions appear. ‘Who is this creature?’ ‘Who can tell me more about her?’ The artist, the poet, and the thinker take inspiration from obscure parts of history, and fill in the gaps with their imagination. The Buraq in Indian art evolved from a nondescript beast to a unique cultural symbol over the span of several centuries.

The Buraq in Indian Art: Appearance and Etymology

The Buraq in Indian Art
Image credit: Orientalauctions

When an otherworldly creature is described in human terms, is it the fault of the storyteller? 

‘Buraq’ is derived from the Arabian root b-r-q meaning ‘brilliance’, ‘shine’ or ‘sparkle’. Perhaps it is a play on the word barq or lightning, referring to the speed at which the buraq travelled. The Quran makes no mention of the creature, who would first appear in a posthumous eighth-century biography of the Prophet by Ibn Ishaq.

Here, the buraq is a white creature with wings. Early descriptions mention that the buraq had a beautiful face, which was later interpreted as that of a human. She had hooves and could take large steps. A horse with wings isn’t as far fetched as it seems. Ahmad ibn Hanbal (born 780—died 855) mentions that the Prophet reprimanded his wife Aisha for using curtains with images of winged horses on them.

The Buraq in Indian Art
The Buraq Worshipped by Two Princes, Kashmir region, 19th century. Image credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Persian is gender neutral, so in early literature the Buraq was described in neutral yet somewhat masculine terms. Post the ninth century, however, the Buraq was now female. In the eleventh century, the Buraq had developed a face. In the late mediaeval period, Persian manuscript artists slowly created the Buraq’s visual appearance into the one we see today.

Oh, Who is She?

Reproduction of 17th century Mughal miniature. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

A woman not born but created, a destiny written before it all. A human face, a horse mane, camel neck and tail, elephant ears, the breast of a mule, the feet of an ox. Chimera-like, even more so than Chimera herself. Later, a leopard skin is draped over her body. In India, she sprouts a peacock’s tail; the echoes of Kamadhenu, the Hindu cow goddess, make themselves known.

The above painting from the Deccan represents the Buraq in an unusual way. The colour palette is similar to certain albums found in Golconda, but visually, this piece closely follows the Bijapur style. Her radiant face stands out from the rest of her body- a peculiar amalgamation of fish, elephant, dragon, bird, and such creatures. Traditionally, she is made up of the parts of different animals, here, the animals become a part of her.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Like the previous Deccan Miniature, the one above gives the buraq a composite body made up of multiple animals. She has a lion’s body, a dragon-headed tail, and snakes for toes. Multiple lions make up her limbs. One bites into a frightened deer, while the dragon bites its tail. A lone elephant in the centre shields another deer from harm. This wildly imaginative composition gives the buraq a brand-new type of beauty.

The Buraq in Indian Art: Whispers From the Past

Wooden toy from Kondapalli. Image credit: Google Arts and Culture

The above toy shows yet another Buraq. Peacock heads at her feet and a camel head as her tail, this buraq is the same, yet so different. The ever-changing Buraq in Indian art presents herself in so many ways, yet can we call one version inaccurate when there is no ‘right’ image?

Image credit: Twitter

The above painting presents the buraq in a new form. Here, she looks less like a horse and more like a cow. Her colourful wings and peacock tai are actually quite similar to representations of the Hindu holy cow goddess Kamadhenu. Although the goddess’s original form is much different, one of her avatars appears similar to the form of the buraq. Which influenced the other? Indian culture is such a complex assimilation of folk, mythology and legend that it is hard to make an accurate assumption.

A print from Ravi Varma Press, 1910. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pictured above is a print from the Ravi Varma Press. This print dates back to the early 19th century. Here the Buraq’s rainbow wings and her jewelled attire closely resemble her Persian descriptions. The peacock feathers on her crown allude to her Indian-ness, as do the patterns on the colourful cloth draped across her back.

A Horse Out of Water

Image credit: Delhi. Bombay. Goa

When we speak of the Buraq in Indian art, it is impossible not to mention ‘Hello to the Hauz’. The once resplendent Hauz-i-Shamsi is now but a shell of its former self. This outdoor exhibit is part of Beam Me Up by, and designed by Vishal Rawlley. The concept is a simple one, yet the novelty in its execution has made the Buraq a permanent part of the resident’s lives.

Image credit: Harikrishna Katragadda via Caravan Magazine

Once upon a time, the waters of Hauz-i-Shamsi supplied water to the surrounding areas. Now it is filled with putrid, rotting garbage and muck. The buraq stands alone in the desolate expanse. On calling a number (9873562911), the LEDs on her body come to life. This project was an attempt to draw attention to the poor condition of the Hauz-i-Shamsi, in the hopes that authorities and locals take steps to restore it to its former glory.

But why the Buraq, of all legendary icons? Hauz-i-Shamshi owes its very existence to the creature. Drought troubled the local residents, as there were no major water bodies nearby. Legend says that King Iltutmish had a dream in which the Prophet Muhammad appeared to him. He saw the buraq strike the earth with its foot, and water sprung forth from the site. When he woke up, he decided to visit the site he dreamed of. To his surprise, there was a single hoof print visible at the exact location the buraq had struck. Iltutmish ordered a reservoir to be built at the site, which solved the water scarcity problem of the region.

She Lives On: Contemporary Traces of The Buraq in Indian Art

The Buraq in Indian Art
The Buraq in Indian Art
Image credit: Shilo Shiv Suleman

Through paintings and wearable art pieces, contemporary artist Shilo Shiv Suleman reimagines the buraq. In a world where women feel threatened and unwelcome, Suleman pleads with the Buraq ‘take me with you’ to a place above the heavens where women can feel like they belong.

The Buraq in Indian Art
Image credit: Seema Kohli

Seema Kohli’s Buraq grows a mane of human hair. Scattered calligraphy recounts verses of the Quran, signifying the holy presence of the prophet. Kohli’s work is abstract yet full of mysticism. An array of motifs, both traditional and contemporary, come together to represent her unique take on an age-old legend.

Image credit: Twitter

The Buraq is used as a talismanic symbol in Indian and Pakistani truck art. Since she carried the prophet on his journey, truck drivers paint the buraq in the hopes that her power will grant them a safe passage and protect them on their long journeys.

To learn more about Indian art forms, download the rooftop app from Google Play or App Store to stay updated on our upcoming art events and workshops. Stay tuned to rooftop blogs and follow us on @rooftop_app.

By Melissa D’Mello

Related Posts