Food for Thought: Melons, Mangoes, and Mughals
Although our recent exhibition Worlds within Worlds: Imperial Paintings from India and Iran has now closed, many of the images can be viewed in great detail online. Michael Rendelmann, curatorial intern at Freer|Sackler, takes a look at the rich Mughal paintings in terms of a different kind of palate.
Throughout the reign of the Mughals, fruit occupied a special place in court culture as well as on the court’s table. Fruit served not only as a foodstuff, but also as an omnipresent statement of who the Mughals were and how they viewed their relationship with their Indian subjects. Fruit was an edible yardstick of civilization, the cultivation and appreciation of which was a key indication of civilized culture.
Mughal elites famously spent lavishly to grow or import exquisite fruits. Gifts of fruit were a matter of protocol in the upper echelons of Mughal society, and formed an unspoken language of diplomacy. While the Mughal love of fruit remained constant, the varieties consumed and the status ascribed to them tell the story of how a dynasty that emerged in Central Asia became Indian.
Babur, the first Mughal emperor, was raised on a Central Asian diet that placed tremendous emphasis on the many fruits that passed through the region. In the markets of Samarkand one could purchase sweet apples, lush melons, and a bounty of other fruits from the region’s orchards. Above all other fruit, the melon was most prized by Babur’s people, for whom the fruit was synonymous with home.
While he was conquering northern India, Babur lamented the paucity of the fruit available in his new kingdom. He had melons of Central Asia rapidly transplanted in India, but during Babur’s lifetime, these had limited horticultural success. To the homesick Babur, the fruit was a means of connecting with his long-lost homeland; according to the emperor’s memoir, the Baburnama, he wept upon tasting one.
By the time Jahangir ascended to the Mughal throne, 75 years after the death of Babur, a great deal about the formerly nomadic conquerors had changed. The relatively austere fare of Babur’s day had given way to an exotic cuisine that drew from every corner of the vast Mughal Empire. Fruit still occupied a prized place at the table and in ceremonial exchanges, but the available produce had changed dramatically. While later Mughals looked to the fruits of their homeland as a nostalgic statement of their heritage, they were far removed from the nomads of Central Asia. Indeed, the melons over which Babur had wept were now forced to share the table with a variety of new produce, such as the Indian mango, for the favor of the court.
Jahangir may have been a descendant of Babur, but for him, Central Asia was only a story, a homeland to which he was a stranger. India was his home, and the mango, not the melon, his fruit of choice. While Babur had dismissed the mango, Jahangir praised it, declaring that “notwithstanding the sweetness of the Kabul fruits, not one of them has, to my taste, the flavor of the mango.”
The bounty of fruits arrayed before Jahangir in the image above reveals a great deal about the trajectory of Mughal court culture. Babur and his melons tell the story of a conquering warrior ruling over an alien land. Babur drew comfort from seeking to replicate the flavors of home, to which he always looked back longingly. Conversely, the cosmopolitan Jahangir had truly “gone native” in his new homeland of India. His love of the exotic and the new told the story of a new Mughal, no longer at home riding across the plains of Central Asia, but dining on the riches of the empire in the lush gardens of India.