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  • Deborah Schlein

Mouthful of Roses: Wellness, Leisure and Refinement

Feast from Dihlavi, Amir Khusraw, [Khamsah]. [خمسه]. Islamic Manuscripts, Garrett no. 84G. f. 55a. Princeton University Library, Special Collections

In a copy of Amir Khusraw Dihlavi’s (d. 1325) Persian Khamsa (1) dating from 1524 Herat, eight full-page paintings highlight scenes of meeting, feasting, and hunting. In the story of Shirin and Khusraw, a painted Feast is on display. A prince is enthroned in the center of the painting. Streaming out of a small archway on the left, attendants carry food and drink to the prince and his many courtiers. And deep conversation appears to be ongoing, noted by the turn of heads and movement of hands, as musicians play on the right.

A closer look at this scene of busy celebration reveals lush vegetation, not just framing the location but embedded in the various ways people are interacting with each other. Green cypress trees and others with densely clustered, pale leaves give height and depth to the painting, peaking over the top borders into the margins. Pink roses climb upwards on the right side of the painting, hiding further courtiers enjoying the evening’s festivities just outside a tiled wall. On the left, the attendants are framed by roses behind them, while courtiers hold up singular pink roses near their faces as they talk and listen, seated to the left of the prince. And right at the front of the prince’s throne lie three roses, two pink and one orange.

The roses in this painting mark leisure, feasting, and celebration as their colorful features draw the eye against the backdrop of a largely cream-infused palette. Leisure in this scene is less about calm and tranquility, and more about the energetic acts of socializing, revelry, and enjoying music. But all of these kinds of leisure, whether energetic or calming, require a person to be healthy. Without one’s health, leisure is a dream out of reach. And roses, which are seen to heighten levels of enjoyment in this painting through their beauty and their assumed fragrance, as well as maybe even through their soft texture, play a part in health and wellness too.

Rose in various Indian medical remedies is a relatively common ingredient. In Mughal India, medical practices included forms of traditional medicine such as Ayurveda and Yunani Tibb. In both these medical traditions, we find rose as a therapeutic constant, often used as a cooling agent for heat-induced afflictions, caused both by the environment and various humors (2). With its foundations in Arabic and Persian medical texts, Yunani Tibb, or Greek medicine, in particular, has numerous rose-forward remedies. And with roses present in both Safavid and Mughal lands, the shared use of rose is an easy connection to spot.

Rose therefore shows up in Yunani medical works across these regions. Ibn Sina’s (d. 1037) al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), a major Arabic foundational source for this tradition of medicine, names the humoral temperament of rose to be “cold in the first phase of the second degree, particularly in its dry state (3).” As such, it is a common cooling remedy for pain in the head caused by a hot humor. Moreover, following in the footsteps of this medical encyclopedia, the Central Asian scholar Najib al-Din al-Samarqandi’s (d. 1222) Arabic al-Asbab wa al-‘Alamat (The Causes and the Symptoms), as well as the Asbab’s eight commentaries, the latter seven of which were written in Mughal and colonial India, showcase the continuity of therapeutic use of rose for headache (4).

Thus, the tendrils of rose climb from:

  1. Ibn Sina’s Qanun noting that “the fresh rose and decoction of (rose) water relieve headache (5),

  2. To al-Samarqandi’s own directions for headache in the Asbab stating that “the head should be cooled with fragrant (drugs), poultices, and oils, and vinegar, rose water and crude oil of roses should be placed on the head (6),”

  3. onward to his Central Asian intermediary Nafis b. ‘Iwad al-Kirmani’s (d. 1437) Arabic Sharh al-Asbab wa al-‘Alamat (the Commentary on the Causes and the Symptoms), which adds other fragrant ingredients to the remedy based in rose, such as violet and camphor (7),

  4. Then on to the only Persian commentary on the Asbab and the first Indian one, Muhammad Akbar Arzani’s (d. 1721) Tibb-i Akbar (Akbar’s Medicine), which translates al-Kirmani’s Sharh and adds Arzani’s own views and suggestions to the work, such as tamarind for headache, in addition to keeping rose as a major ingredient in its treatment (8),

and this fragrant flower retains its well known medical properties in practice and in the textual tradition of Yunani Tibb.


Nur Jahan portrait from [Album of miniatures and specimens of calligraphy of Indian origin]. Islamic Manuscripts, Garrett no. 102Ge South wall 16+17, f. 9a. Princeton University Library, Special Collections

The rose’s connections to medicine, gardens, and overall health therefore give rise to various connotations for the flower. Surrounding a painting entirely different from the energetic feast in the rose garden, we see Persian verses that present a Mughal understanding of rose in terms of medical connotations, the status of one’s health and place in the world, and deep lovesickness. Included in a calligraphy album (9) filled with many examples of poetry and paintings, this particular piece depicts Nur Jahan Begum (d. 1645), the wife of the Mughal emperor Jahangir (r. 1605-1627), sitting in a leisurely position as she enjoys a more abstract garden. Leaning back against gold cushions stacked upon on a rug of two flower designs, she faces an attendant, while behind her stand four blue-green cypress trees against a landscape of abstract greenery that leaves the details of the rest of her environment to the viewer’s imagination. In the foreground, the artist has painted a fountain with flower beds on both sides filled with pink blooms, themselves possibly identifiable as roses. But it is the Persian verses just above and below the painting that bring rose immediately to mind.

I am the light, I am the fire, I am the garden, I am the rose bed

I am the temple, I am the idol, I am the brahmin, I am the sacred thread.

No, No, I am wrong, between these things, I am nothing

I am the color of the rose and the sick temperament (10)

This rubaiyyat, or quatrain, is attributed to Nur Jahan herself, and its use of rose terminology eloquently bookends its sentiments. The first two verses, above the painting, relay to the audience the vibrancy and light of the poet. Here, the rose garden is compared to the light and the fire, making one think of strength and beauty. Yet, the second two verses bring the poet down to the essence of her mortality. She no longer believes she belongs, and, rather than epitomizing health and strength as before, she, in fact, sees herself as unwell. Thus, from a medical perspective, the last description, tabi’at-e bimar-am, can be translated as sick temperament in the sense of one’s health, or sick nature, generally being the humoral disposition of ill health. Here, rose, used first to signify beauty and strength, is now invoked to highlight the visual appearance of ill health, bringing to mind the heat that appears in one’s cheeks when suffering from fever.

By the same token, being the color of the rose and sick temperament points towards a different kind of illness - that of lovesickness, blushing for one’s beloved but not being able to attain that connection. After exploring possible medical interpretations for the use of rose in these verses, I delved into their meaning further with Ellen Ambrosone, Princeton University Library’s South Asian Studies librarian, who pointed out a broader perspective that comes into play. In these verses, themes of connectedness come to the fore. They list connected pairs: light and then the source of that light in the fire, a garden and then a particular kind of garden in the rose bed, a structure named as temple and the heart of that temple being the idol, and a being referenced as brahmin connected to the sacred thread, or the symbol of the twice born. Each of these pairs belong together. Since the poet writes in the third verse “I am wrong, between these things, I am nothing,” another interpretation could be that they feel unpaired and without their necessary connection. In this case, that lovesickness is illustrated by the lack of connection and the ill-health the poet references. And this interpretation is further justified when we learn that while these verses in the album are attributed to Nur Jahan herself, they or similar verses may also come from a larger poem attributed to Nizamuddin Auliya (d. 1325), the Chishti Sufi saint, in which he further describes lovesickness and the relationship between the lover and the beloved, those major themes of Sufi poetry that paint a picture here of deep disconnection and longing in love (11).

A 'Kazanlik' damask rose from Nicolas Roth's garden this Spring (2023)

Lovesickness, connection, and, by extension, health are at the heart of these verses. One feels the pull of anguish and mortality through the dichotomy created from the beginning to the end of these lines. As a reader, I am reminded that one second, a human being can be in the peak of health and connection, and the next second that health, strength, and support can deteriorate. But these verses also remind us that we are fallible beings and connection is not a given. We are fragile, and even as we are made of light and fire, those very same elements can burn us, severing our connections and health, just as love that creates that warmth can also cause us pain. Through these verses, it is the use of rose in a myriad of ways that elevates the feelings of im/mortality and deep connection conveyed here.

And more broadly, in the paintings, we have flowers to remind us of these things. The blooms surrounding Nur Jahan, be they rose or otherwise, showcase a level of leisure and beauty highly curated and enjoyed by a wife of a Mughal emperor. Just as they convey comfort and enjoyment, so too do the tendrils of roses growing in the courtyard of the celebratory feast painted into the sixteenth-century Khamsa, and without health allotted to the individuals in either of these paintings, life cannot be enjoyed to its fullest extent. Roses can offer beauty and remind us of strength and connection. They can also recall lovesickness and fevered cheeks while simultaneously treating our heated heads, cooling us down, and bringing us back to balanced health, thus further allowing us to enjoy the world around us.


Deborah Schlein is the Near Eastern Studies Librarian at Princeton University, where she also received her PhD in Near Eastern Studies in 2019. She studies the history of Yunani medicine in Mughal and colonial India with a focus on the production, usage, and reception of Arabic and Persian medical manuscripts.


The manuscripts and paintings in this piece were selected by the author and Ellen Ambrosone, the librarians for Near Eastern Studies and South Asian Studies, respectively, at Princeton University Library. Thanks also go to Ellen for offering editing suggestions and thoughts on poetry interpretation.

The paintings referred to in this piece represent painting styles of the broader Persianate world. While the second painting was produced in Mughal India, the first painting referenced here was influenced by and created in imitation of Safavid styles.



  1. Dihlavi, Amir Khusraw, [Khamsah]. [خمسه]. Islamic Manuscripts, Garrett no. 84G. f. 55a. Princeton University Library, Special Collections. Additionally, this manuscript was copied in 1524 in Herat, but Marianna Shreve Simpson has shown that the paintings themselves were a modern production, created in the twentieth-century, likely to make the manuscript more appealing for the global market. Although this painting is not strictly Mughal, taking its influences largely from Safavid works, its relevance and connections to Mughal painting and the broader paintings styles of the Persianate world still apply. For more on the later date of these paintings, see Marianna Shreve Simpson, “Mostly modern miniatures: classical Persian painting in the early twentieth century,” in Muqarnas, XXV (2008), 359-395.

  2. Kumar, A., Kaur, A., Joshi, V. K., & Kumar, V. (2017). “Rosa damascena: Quality evaluation and process optimization for the development of rose syrup.” International Journal of Food and Fermentation Technology, 7(2), 279-285. (p. 279).

  3. Ibn Sīnā. Kitāb al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb. Book II, 405. Matba’ Ma’had Tarikh al-Tibbi wa al-Abhath al-Tibbiya, New Delhi, 1987-88 (1408 hijri).

  4. Ibn Sīnā. Kitāb al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb. Book II, 405.

  5. al-Samarqandī, al-Asbāb wa al-ʿAlāmāt (New Delhi: Jamia Hamdard, Ṭibb 1941), f. 1b.

  6. al-Kirmānī, Sharḥ al-Asbāb wa al-ʿAlāmāt (London: British Library, DEL AR 1696), f. 4a. Al-Kirmani’s text is the first of the eight commentaries and the only one of them written outside of India.

  7. Arzānī, Ṭibb-i Akbar (Lucknow: Maṭbaʿ Naval Kishore, 1939), 5.

  8. There were 6 Arabic commentaries written in India after Arzani’s Tibb-i Akbar, up into the nineteenth century.

  9. [Album of miniatures and specimens of calligraphy of Indian origin]. Islamic Manuscripts, . Islamic Manuscripts, Garrett no. 102Ge South wall 16+17, f. 9a. Princeton University Library, Special Collections.

  10. Poetry translations from this second painting’s Persian verses were initially done by Dan Sheffield, Associate Professor in Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies department. Further discussions about the nuances of the translations and the medical connotations were undertaken by Dan Sheffield, Deborah Schlein (this piece’s author), and Ellen Ambrosone.

  11. C.R. Jain, Gems of Islam, Part II, Entitled Gems from the Mystics of Islam, New Delhi, 1975, 41-42.


Published 1st November 2023



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