Rama breaking the bow of Lord Shiva in the court of Raja Janaka

A scene from the Ramayana, the Indian epic that follows Prince Rama's quest to rescue his beloved wife from the demon King Ravana

Rama breaking the bow of Lord Shiva in the court of Raja Janaka (c. 1605) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The first surviving illustrated copy of the Ramayana comes from the court of not a Hindu king but the Muslim emperor Akbar’s atelier. The epic Ramayana was translated into Persian on the orders of the emperor Akbar, and then illustrated in many different copies. 

Unlike the many Ramayana manuscripts of this period, made either for the royal household of the Mughal emperor or the nobility translated into Persian, this particular series, however, retains the original Sanskrit text, indicating that the manuscript was probably made for a Hindu patron, probably the wealthy Bundela Rajput noble Bir Singh Deo Bundela a prominent Mughal courtier.

Bir Singh Deo Bundela had a distinguished but notorious career; supporting the rebellious court of Prince Salim, the future Mughal emperor Jahangir, son of Akbar who staked claim to the Mughal throne, and by conveniently assassinating Abu’l Fazl, Emperor Akbar’s closest friend and advisor, and a thorn in the side of Salim.

The style of the illustrations in the manuscript followed a simplified Mughal court style, executed by former Mughal-trained artists trained in Akbar’s atelier.

The scene depicts an event from the epic Ramayana, when Rama, the prince of Ayodhya and an incarnate of the God Vishnu, breaks the celestial bow of the God Shiva, manifesting his superhuman powers.

According to the epic, King Janaka of Mithila set up a test for suitors desirous of marrying his beautiful daughter Sita. Using the celestial bow Pinaka of the God Shiva, gifted to him by the God himself, the suitors were tasked to lift the bow and string it.

This was no ordinary bow, however; such were the powers of the celestial bow, that it could not even be approached by selfish individuals, and lifting it was a feat beyond the capability of an ordinary mortal.

Rama, in the court of King Janaka, effortlessly lifted the bow and stringed it, and then stretching the string to test it for its tautness, inadvertently broke it. The sound of its breaking resounded like thunder making the earth tremble.

The scene is set in an open pavilion depicting a crowd of courtiers of King Janaka encircling the two princes of Ayodhya.

The blue-skinned Rama is attired in a breathtakingly beautiful muslin jama, barely perceptible and rendered exquisitely gossamer thin.

Rama has just broken Shiva’s celestial bow, evoking reactions from the surrounding court of King Janaka.

On the left, Rama’s devoted brother Lakshmana affects a gesture of gratification, placing his hand upon his chest, apparently after an interlude of nervous anticipation.

The King Janaka, knowing that Rama’s miraculous feat is beyond the capacity of a mere mortal watches with astonishment and wonder. Seated next to him, Janaka’s brother expresses his surprise and pleasure.

Others below convey their awe and bewilderment at the superhuman feat.

Others below convey their awe and bewilderment at the superhuman feat. One man on the left bows, touching his head on the ground in a gesture of deep reverence and supplication.

Beyond the seated group of courtiers, the standing men depicted below convey stirrings of restless energy articulating their awe and perplexity, astonished by the miraculous feat.

The artist skilfully executes the composition in a manner that progressively unfolds greater affective gestures and dynamic poses around the Rama who remains a nucleus of the attention; in contrast to their impassioned and expressive gestures, he is depicted as calm and placed in a vacant uncluttered area.

The outer circle of the courtiers is deliberately rendered as less active in their gestures so as to retain the focus towards the centre.

A happy amalgamation of diverse stylistic modes both Indian and Persian coexist - a sumptuous painted façade of Persian-derived floral blue motifs that ornaments the palace in the top centre is carefully balanced..

..by painted motifs in red in an Indian style.

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