Art of Calligraphy

Arabic and Persian Inscriptions on Objects

Handa (Cooking Vessel) (1023 AH/ 1615 AD) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi


Calligraphy, the art of fancy lettering of a script, is one of the most important and fascinating aspects of Islamic culture. Various artefacts portray the beautiful Arabic-Persian inscriptions, which were artistically blended with flora-fauna designs to decorate objects. This exhibition titled, “Art of Calligraphy” highlights these elements.

The art of calligraphy first started with writing of Quran in Kufic script in Arabic language. With the expansion of Islam, calligraphy also reached other parts of the world, where it was encouraged, adopted with the regional characters and flourished in different ways. Quran also talks about the importance of written words thus giving a high status to a calligrapher.

Bracelet (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The uniqueness and flexibility of Arabic letters encouraged calligraphers to introduce various scripts and use different mediums. Kufic, Naskh, Nastaliq and Tugra are a few scripts which were used to decorate manuscripts, architecture and different type of utilitarian artifacts. This exhibition focuses on the artefacts which were decorated with calligraphy. These decorated artefacts made of wood, semi-precious stones, iron, copper, brass, bidri and textiles etc. were created for daily, occasional and ceremonial use. The exhibition explores the vast scope of craftsmen’s work.

Thal (Big Plate) Top View (1344 AH/ 1926-27 AD) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

Different techniques like koftagari or damascening, bidri, niello, engraving, writing, printing and embroidering on textiles, have been exhibited through a number of exquisite objects.The artifacts have been categorized according to their use into five main groups; writing implements, religion, faith, tradition and trade.

Exhibition Gallery ViewNational Museum - New Delhi

Calligraphy on Implements

Calligraphers had a high status in karkhanas of Sultanate, Mughal and Deccani rulers, where they used to work in close association with miniature painting artists. The artifacts like pen store box or pen case and inkwell were equally important for calligraphers as the reed pens and other implements were. Calligrapher’s artistic tastes are well represented here in the first section, where the beautiful iron and copper pen-cases decorated with flora-fauna, brass lamp, iron scissors and seals are displayed.

Qalamdan (pen-case) OpenNational Museum - New Delhi

This rectangular pen-case has two dawats (inkwells), with tiny lids and a tray. The tray provides division of two levels to the pen container for storing more qalams (pen). The case is beautifully decorated with niello or siaha qalam work.

Qalamdan (pen-case) Qalamdan (pen-case) (1844 AD) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The dome-shaped outer portion of the lid is decorated with three cartouches, which contain Persian verses in prose and poetry form.

A date is inscribed within rectangular floral border. The corners have designs depicting birds, animals and floral motifs.

Candle Stand (Late 19th - Early 20th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This is a simple candle stand with a rod fixed on a circular plate/tray which rests on three legs. The candle stand has been worked with chasing technique.

The circular tray is beautifully engraved with two calligraphic bands, which are surrounded by motifs of flower petal and fish scale.

Qalamdan (Pen-case) (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This Qalamdan is an attractive example of a damascening or koftgari work. The qalamdan’s lid and side walls are highly decorated, however it is plain from inside.

The box has a slightly raised lid with curved edges and a flat top, which has two elongated mihrabs containing Persian inscription.

Scissors OpenNational Museum - New Delhi

Scissors are important tools for calligraphers. They use them for shearing paper, cloth, leather or thin metal sheet.

This pair of scissors has been decorated with koftgari work. It has a long pointed tip, sharp blades and round handle.

The upper portion has beautiful ornamentation depicting floral pattern all around.

The most attractive part of the scissors is the artistic illumination of few Arabic letters near the handle portion, known as bow.

Stamp BaseNational Museum - New Delhi

This beautiful seal with ivory handle has a name engraved on it. The name reads Mirza Muhammad Ali Khan Baig. It also has a date 1254 AH / 1840 CE engraved on the base.

Stamp HandleNational Museum - New Delhi

Exhibition Gallery ViewNational Museum - New Delhi

Objects of Religious Significance

Calligraphy, geometry, interlacing the arabesque, all that subjugates free-flowing art into a disciplined surface-covering decoration of the Islamic art, are reflected on artifacts made for religious purpose. Many artifacts were specially made for ritualistic purposes, which were decorated with holy tenets of the Quran. Each of the artifacts displayed in this section reflects the religious sensitivity as well as artistic expression of different art forms.

Shia Flag (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This Shia flag or long banner is a beautiful example of embroidery done with gota, kalabatu, sequin and tiny glass beads on cotton and satin silk fabric.

The design of the vertical banner has been worked in three parts. The upper portion is plain satin silk.

The second and third division depict design inspired by mosque architecture. The inscriptions are present clockwise from top to bottom. Broad yellow coloured zari gota has also been attached all over the banner.

Blue, white, green, and red coloured beads have been worked on silver badla, which gives a raised effect to the inscriptions.

Panja Alam FrontNational Museum - New Delhi

Alam, the standard, is an important religious object used during the morning procession of Muharram. Such alams are made in different shapes. The ‘Panja’ or ‘protective hand’ shaped alam is considered the most sacred.

Panja Alam BackNational Museum - New Delhi

Five fingers of the protective hand symbolize the last prophet Hazrat Mohammad (PBUH), Hazrat Fatima, Hazrat Ali, Hazrat Hasan and Hazrat Husain.

This Punja alam is fully inscribed on both sides.

Jaa-namaz (Prayer Carpet) (Early 19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The term ‘Jaa-namaz’ refers to the prayer carpet used by Muslims while praying to Allah (The Almighty God).

This ‘Jaa-namaz’ piece is made in the kalamkari technique and has delicate floral designs. This is characteristic of Masulipatnam style of work of 19th century.

The arched gate of the mosque has been replicated very prominently in this Jaa-namaz.

There is a small panel illustrating the inscription in Arabic above the gate.

Exhibition Gallery ViewNational Museum - New Delhi


People’s faith in Almighty inspired them to create many talismanic objects with belief that it is imbued with protective powers. These objects generally bear Quranic inscriptions, astrological signs and religious narratives. The common belief attached to these things is that an object that is inscribed with the name of God (Allah) will protect the person who reads, touches and sees it. Such talismanic object are believed to posses the power to ward off evil. These vivid artifacts were made with great devotion and dedication. 

Kashkul (Mendicant's Bowl) Kashkul (Mendicant's Bowl)National Museum - New Delhi

A kashkul is generally used by the Ulema (clergy) or Sufis of the Islamic mystics’ world.

This one is made of coconut de mer shell which is plant of the coconut family.

It is decorated with verses from Holy Quran and figurative work. The outer body of this kashkul has bold inscriptions arranged in a horizontal band which is magnificently carved with stylized central medallion pattern. There is a well executed floral creeper band around the written portion.

The entire pattern is carved in low relief by etching and stands out beautifully on the dark background.

Kashkul (Mendicant's Bowl) Kashkul (Mendicant's Bowl)National Museum - New Delhi

Silver chain attached with hinges on both the ends works as the handle of the bowl.

Kashkul (Mendicant’s Bowl) (18th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The shape of this jade kashkul is like a kamandalu. It has round body with a big opening on the top.

The body has intricate decorations in the form of two rectangular bands with Persian inscriptions on both sides of the body. These bands are surrounded by floral buta, worked in slightly raised manner.

Box (18th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This exquisitely decorated wooden box has arabesque (interlaced foliage and tendrils), floral design and inscription on it.

The top portion of the box illustrates eight-pointed star within cartouches, with inscriptions around the points. Similar design, but in half, is on both sides and all three star buta’s are surmounted with narrow border of geometric pattern. The inner portion of the box has intricate wood carving.

Such composition has been extensively used for decorating the monuments of Deccan and North India.

An inscription and a floral pattern within diamond composition are enclosed in a criss-cross border.

Talismanic Tunic FrontNational Museum - New Delhi

This graceful cotton hand-painted talismanic tunic has a round neck, three-fourth sleeves, slightly flared skirt portion and tying system of fabric tassels on sleeves, armpit and waistline.

The tunic is fully inscribed with Quranic verses, which are handwritten. They are written within and around circles and squares of different size and style, in red and black colour. Many small squares are composed within big squares. The row of small circles around the neck line is elegant and beautiful.

Talismanic Tunic BackNational Museum - New Delhi

There is a belief that the holy words written on these inscribed tunics would protect the wearer from any peril.

Exhibition Gallery ViewNational Museum - New Delhi

This farji garment has been weaved in brocade with Arabic inscriptions.

Farji (Choga-style garment) Farji (Choga-style garment) (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The maroon silk-zari brocade garment has front opening with raised collar and full sleeves, like a choga.

It illustrates ogee arches pattern worked in ganga-jumna technique (gold and silver thread) all over the field. The inscription has been created in silver metal thread, while ogee arch pattern in leaf style has been created with zari thread.

Such garments were perhaps specially commissioned for ritualistic or religious purposes.

Ta'weez (Amulet) (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This enchanting carnelian ring from North India has beautifully executed calligraphy on it. It is a ta'weez or amulet worn for protection against bad luck.

On it is inscribed name of Qayam Jang Bahadur Khan, numerous numbers and some holy names of God. Some of the names are Salam (salvation, peace), Munἰm (faithful, protector), Malik (lord, master) and Raqib (a guardian).

Bracelet (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This bracelet from North India has seven semi-precious stones set in silver frame. The stones have been inscribed with holy tenets.

It was believed that the wearer of this bracelet would be shielded from evil powers.

Amulet (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This amulet is made of one carnelian stone surrounded by tiny blue stone beads set in silver. The carnelian bears the inscription in which various names of almighty God has been mentioned. The names include Ya Hafiz (O guardian, commander, lord, god), Ya Malik (O lord), Ya Kabir, Ya Qavi (O great power), Ya Aziz (O magnificent), Ya Karim (O generous), and Ya Rahim (O most beneficent).

Plaque (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This rectangular plaque set in silver was used as a Ta'weez (amulet). The inscription on it reads, “No God but Allah and Mohammad is prophet of Allah”.

Ring (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This ring made of translucent light carnelian set in silver frame was also believed to protect the wearer from evil. The complete Ayat-al-kursi (the Throne Verse)is incribed on it.

Exhibition Gallery ViewNational Museum - New Delhi

Vessels of Devotion

A number of utensils were richly decorated with floral patterns and inscribed in Arabic and Persian. These generally served as vessels for rituals or for the royal court. The vast range of utensils, from cooking vessels to drinking bowls in different shape, size and material, is the main focus of this group. The intricately decorated plates with inscriptions were used to keep cups and to exchange gifts. Sometimes people who used these vessels believed that the water or food kept inside these inscribed vessels would have healing properties.

Abkhora (water bowl) with lid Abkhora (water bowl) with lidNational Museum - New Delhi

The Persian word, ‘abkhora’, originates from ‘khora’ (bowl) and ‘aab’ (water), which means bowl for drinking water. It is believed that the water contained in this has healing powers.

Abkhora (water bowl) with lid Abkhora (water bowl) with lidNational Museum - New Delhi

Such bowls are fully inscribed with verses from Holy Quran inside. The abkhoras are beautiful examples of Bidri work of Deccan, belonging to 18th-19th CE.

Abkhora (Water Bowl) with lid and plate Abkhora (Water Bowl) with lid and plate (Late 19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The outer surface is artistically decorated with flower butis.

Abkhora (Water Bowl) with lid and plate PlateNational Museum - New Delhi

On one side of the plate are three bands of inscription surrounding a central circle which is also inscribed.

Abkhora (Water Bowl) with lid and plate PlateNational Museum - New Delhi

The other side of the plate has floral designs as bands at the edge and in the centre. Flowers with stem and leaves are shown radially around the central circle.

Abkhora (Water Bowl) (Late 18th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This masterpiece from Kashmir is a wonderful example of calligraphy and decoration on metal.

This abkhora has deep well-shaped bowl, open flared mouth and a low ring base. The name ‘Ramazan-bin-Abdullah’ appears on this vessel.

It is an important piece as it has Iranian style workmanship and the name of person who offers water to his master is inscribed on it, which is rare.

It is plain inside, while the exterior is fully carved with floral pattern, zodiac symbols and band of inscriptions from Quran and other religious tenets.

Bowl Side ViewNational Museum - New Delhi

This bowl has flared mouth, edged rim, a raised knob on the inner side and a ring base. It is fully inscribed with various verses from the Quran such as Surah Fateh, Surah Kaferoon and Surah Ikhlas and Nadi Ali.

There are 40 small leaf shaped hangings attached with wire which are all inscribed with Bismillah.

Bowl InsideNational Museum - New Delhi

The inner and exterior portions of the bowl have been worked in chasing technique. The letters of inscriptions are of two sizes; bold and minute.

Handa (Cooking Vessel) (1023 AH/ 1615 AD) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This handi (cooking vessel) from North India is decorated with floral pattern and Persian couplets, which are inscribed around the object.

The Persian couplets give out messages for human beings. The date 1023 AH/ 1615 CE is inscribed near the couplets. The date is of Mughal emperor Jahangir’s reign (1605-1627).

On the inner edge and around the neck portion of vessel, the Persian couplets express the resemblance of beauty of the beloved one with the vessel.

Stem vessel with lid ClosedNational Museum - New Delhi

This ‘stem vessel’ or ‘bowl with stand’ with lid is a very good example of metal ware from Deccani workshop.

Stem vessel with lid OpenNational Museum - New Delhi

The inner portion of the cup and lid has three rows of concentric bands inscribed with religious tenets and names such as ‘Ya Allah’ and ‘Ya-Mohammad’ in Arabic language. The first band of vessel has eight roundels, filled with inscriptions, while rest of the inscription is in circles.

Three circular bands are on the lid filled with inscriptions. The plain outer surface of the vessel is decorated with floral butas.

Plate Side View (16th - 17th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This plate from North India has inscription within concentric circles around the centre.

Thal (Big Plate) Top View (1344 AH/ 1926-27 AD) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This is a thal (big plate), which has inscriptions covering one whole side. The inscriptions are in bands around the centre.

Dish (1012 AH/ 1604 AD) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

Such plates were used to make offerings in rituals, gifts in royal courts or as a base for keeping cups.

Exhibition Gallery ViewNational Museum - New Delhi


This small section portrays the tradition of making celestial sphere and astrolabe. The tradition of crafting such instruments was practiced under Mughal emperor Humanyun (r.1530-1556) and his successor’s reigns. Representations of celestial sphere and astrolabe shows the Mughal legacy of using cartography artifacts.

Celestial Sphere (1629 AD) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

This celestial sphere depicts human, animal and bird figures, besides inscription, all over it. Line of equator, positioning of stars, zodiac and other information have been marked by silver inlay dots at places. This is inscribed with the date of 2nd year of Shah Jahan’s reign, which is 1629 CE.

Astrolabe (Late 18th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

Astronomers and astrologers used the astrolabe for studying the altitude of celestial bodies. The provision of a simple sighting device made it possible to calculate the elevation of a particular star or of the sun. This enabled one to determine the time and indicate the direction.

The instrument consists of a solid body, the mater, into which fit a series of planets and a revolving circular web-like star map, called the ‘rete’ in Europe and the ‘ankabut’ (spider) in the Islamic world. The various elements, including a sighting vane (the alidade), on the back of the instrument, were held together by a pin.

It has many round discs, fixed in round frames with inscriptions indicating the position of stars and planets. The mater is inscribed from inside with the names of different places like Alexandria, Al-Balad, Noorpur, Madin-al-Hekma, Madina-e-Rassol, Mecca Mubarak, Basrah etc.

Celestial sphere with stand (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The second sphere has a stand which also works as part of the instrument. The usual trend in celestial spheres follows the classic Ptolemaic constellations in their standard pictorial form together with their designations in Arabic and several stars.

This sphere has many inscriptions in Arabic to indicate the position of planets and stars.

Exhibition Gallery ViewNational Museum - New Delhi

Gifts and Exchanges

Due to the importance and high value of objects with inscriptions on it, these were many a times traded and presented to people as gifts. Some of the objects bear the name of the person giving the gift as well as the person receiving it. The objects would signify strong relations between the two.

Dastarkhan (Spread) (Early 19th century) by Qalam-a-kaar Muhammad Mahdi Sadras-AalaNational Museum - New Delhi

This rectangular dastarkhan or spread is a good example of cotton block printed and painted kalamkaris with cotton lining and fringes.

This graceful dastarkhan has maroon centre field, which illustrates intricately executed check-pattern.

The central panel is surmounted by narrow yellow floral border. This is followed by a broad border filled with floral design arranged in diamond pattern. Three coloured ogee-patterned border, on horizontal side, is like additional fringe or lace type decoration.

A Persian stamp is on one end of dastarkhan probably with the name of the artist ‘Qalam-a-kaar Muhammad Mahdi Sadras-Aala’.

Dastar (turban) (19th century) by UnknownNational Museum - New Delhi

The word ‘Dastar’ (in Persian) or ‘turban’ or ‘pagdi’ (in Hindi) is used for the long loose piece of cloth worn as head-dress by men in India.

The turban is tied by folding it in different styles and wrapping it around the head. Turban generally becomes insignia of a person’s pride. The colour, tying style, shape and additional ornamentation often indicate the status of a person in the royal court.

The fine long plain muslin of white colour has inscription of six lines in Persian at one end and is a fine example of a ‘dastar’.

The couplets describe that the turban was presented as a Hadya (gift) to a noble who was entitled as Motaámmed Daula, a minister of India by Mumin. The couplets contain prayers to Almighty God, for the noble man for his long life

Credits: Story

Curation: Dr. Anamika Pathak and Zahid Ali Ansari

Exhibit Compilation - Rajalakshmi Karakulam

Gallery Design - Kuldeep Pokhriyal and Priya

Photography - Hariom Maurya & Suresh Mahto

Photo Editing - Hariom Maurya

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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