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  • Nicolas Roth

Visual Nosegays: Plants and Scent in Early Modern South Asian Painting

Portrait of Muḥammad 'Aadil, Deccani School, Bijapur Style, Late Islamic, c.1645, British Museum


To take a close look at paintings from Mughal South Asia is to delve into a realm of elaborate, idealized material consumption. Man-made objects such as clothes, jewelry, and weapons, which commonly fall in the art historian’s purview, constitute part of this world; more ephemeral natural elements, chief among them plants and plant products, make up another. Vegetation as material luxury frames countless images in the form of sumptuous garden settings or lush scenes of impossibly perfect nature. Moreover, human figures are frequently shown holding flowers or fruit and surrounded by produce. Scenes of aristocratic men and women at leisure or receiving guests are replete with heaps of roses, jasmine garlands, vases filled with luxurious bouquets of narcissi, and platters of betel leaf and luscious fruit.

Beyond the visual impression of abundance, to contemporary, local audiences these vegetal references would have been powerfully evocative of smell and taste, with the overwhelming majority of plants typically featured being ones appreciated particularly for their aroma. The specific and intentional depiction of plants and plant materials in early modern South Asian painting thus served to add a further experiential dimension to the art work, conveying an olfactory and gustatory understanding of the situation depicted despite the inability of ink and paint on paper to physically transmit these smells and tastes. Through the chosen sets of paintings, the perfume creations based on them, and the curated presentation and explanation of the plants, processes, and diverse material objects associated with both, Bagh-e Hind aims to recuperate this aspect of experiencing pre-colonial South Asian art, reopening the gates to a garden of the senses that the passage of time had closed.


Visual Nosegays: Plants and Scent in Early Modern South Asian Painting

Our visual economy privileges the human image. This is evident today across social media, where images of people – and especially conventionally attractive ones – tend to garner the greatest engagement algorithms persistently propel them to the front of the digital queue. Yet it also seems to hold for painting in early modern South Asia, and for the way we now see and understand the images produced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries under the Mughals and their eventual successor states as well as their Rajput vassals and rivals. Notwithstanding common misconceptions regarding the permissibility of figural representation in Islamic art, both Muslim and non-Muslim artists produced countless portraits and images replete with human figures, under patrons that likewise represented a diversity of religious affiliations (1).

In painting after painting, Hindu gods and Sufi saints, princes and peasants, noble ladies and industrious attendants go about their work, perform, play, pursue romance, stand at attention or sit in elegant repose. When looking at these works, the focus, not surprisingly, tends to be on these figures and their activities much more so than the details of their surroundings. And yet, it is these elements – the setting of a scene, and the material accoutrements of its protagonists – that often carry much of the meaning and expressive power of these paintings. They evoke seasons and times of day, hint at literary references, and convey specific sensory experiences and pleasures that would have resonated strongly with contemporary viewers, even as many of us today may be rather removed from them. Gardens and plants are among the most prominent and sensorially rich of these pictorial elements, though it often requires considerable knowledge of plants, gardening practices, and their cultural associations to fully “read” these details. Bagh-e Hind, our “Garden of India,” is an attempt to make this wealth visual, olfactory, and gustatory history – and pleasure! – more readily available, both by explicating what exactly is depicted in various types of paintings and the associations this was intended to evoke and by translating those experiences into scents and tastes that can be experienced today.

The paintings featured in the exhibition are primarily genre scenes, both in the sense that they each represent a genre of many related works of similar content and composition, and in that they are meant to conjure up the feel of a certain type of moment and convey a particular kind of experience, rather than just depict a specific event. Writing about the pictorial practices of the Rajput court of Mewar at Udaipur, art historian Dipti Khera observes, “[p]ictures of moods possess the overpowering ability to make places real and times memorable – to create worlds. Since the third century, the poets and intellectuals who shaped premodern aesthetics recognized the art of generating bhāva – a word encompassing moods, emotions, and feelings, Udaipur’s painters expanded the conceptualization of bhāva in visual terms, rendering moods of the material world around them” (2). Several of the paintings at the heart of Bagh-e Hind are eighteenth-century works from Udaipur of the precise type Khera is discussing; yet even beyond those pieces, her centering of the concept of bhāva, the mood or aestheticized feeling of a scene, offers an invaluable approach to “reading” the wealth of botanical and horticultural detail across numerous types of early modern South Asian painting. Khera also stresses the importance of literary and material context for the moods or emotional experiences paintings were designed to convey. She writes “that poetic panegyrics and the visual historicity of portraits and real places seen in paintings must be studied in integrated ways...Such emphases on associations have enabled my insights into objects depicting historical moods, though they developed effectively only in the scholarly struggles of working between eighteenth-century artistic practices in the media of painting, poetry, and architecture” (3). In interpreting the intentional, meaningful use of plants and garden settings in the paintings that constitute part of Bagh-e Hind, we extend this approach beyond depictions of specific, identifiable locations to also include representations of ideal, generic spaces, which nonetheless serve to evoke the sensations and mood – the bhāva - of real places.

The importance of plants as the source of scent and raw material of many prepared olfactants in the context of medieval and early modern South Asia has received some scholarly attention in recent years. James McHugh’s magisterial study Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture explores smell and perfumery in ancient and medieval India using primarily Sanskrit and Prakrit sources (4). Other research has focused especially on the Deccan, spearheaded by the work of Ali Akbar Husain and likely motivated by the existence of the ‘Itriyyah-i Nawras-shāhī, an extensive seventeenth-century Persian-language perfumery text from the Deccani sultanate of Bijapur, a manuscript of which survives at the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library and Research Centre in Hyderabad (5). To the extent that this research has engaged with the intersection of fragrant plants and perfumery with other domains of culture, the focus has been almost entirely on references to scented plants, garden settings, and perfumery practices in literary texts. McHugh highlights the sophisticated literary features of Sanskrit and Prakrit writings and perfumery, and Husain focuses on descriptions of gardens filled with fragrant plants as features verse romances in Dakhanī (6). Even in the Kavita Singh-edited Marg volume titled Scent upon a Southern Breeze: The Synaesthetic Arts of the Deccan, the engagement with scent is mainly textual, in the form of essays by Husain and Emma Flatt discussing Deccani perfumery culture and written sources on it (especially the ‘Itriyyah-i Nawras-shāhī), without much consideration of the representation of plants and olfactants in the visual arts (7). Yet botanical representation in much early modern South Asian painting is specific, deliberate, and meaningful, in no small part because of the smell memories that recognition of particular plants would have triggered in a knowledgeable, contemporary audience. Part of the translation work of Bagh-e Hind, as an exhibition and as a perfumery project, is to recreate that familiarity, highlighting the very intentional inclusion of fragrant flowers in paintings and illuminating their significance and sensual associations.

The painting at the center of the first section of our exhibition, the one themed ‘Rose,’ is of the kind Khera writes about specifically: a panoramic visual account of the Mewari mahārāṇā Jagat Singh II visiting the Gulāb Bāṛī or “rose garden” with a retinue of nobles, painted by the artists Raghūnāth in 1750. Jagat Singh and his attendants and companions appear twice in the painting, once in the lower register processing to the garden and then enthroned on a platform in its center. However, it is the roses that really take center stage here. True to its name, the garden is really a plantation of rose bushes, planted in orderly rows in four rectangular plots. They have bright pink, double flowers, typical of the strains of damask rose (Rosa x damascena) that are most commonly cultivated for the production of rosewater and rose oil. Prior to the appearance of the Bourbon and then hybrid tea classes of rose varieties, these would have been the standard roses in South Asian horticulture, as across much of the Middle East. The very idea of a rose would have most commonly been identified with these lusciously fragrant, shaggy pink blooms, available for a brief moment in spring, rather than the long-stemmed, pointed red buds produced year-round, which only emerged from breeding efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

That the fragrance of the roses is to be understood as the defining feature of the scenario depicted here is implied not only by the utilitarian, orderly mass planting of the roses bushes which strongly suggests that they are being cultivated primarily for practical uses such as rosewater production, but also by the way the human figures interact with the flowers. Both Jagat Singh II and most of the gentlemen sitting with him are holding and sniffing small bunches of roses. In addition, they are wearing or handling rose garlands, and further garlands as well as large trays of loose blossoms sit between them. Some even have additional roses tucked into their turbans. The enjoyment of the roses and their luxuriant fragrance is thus a core part of what this painting is about, constituent of the bhāva or mood the work is meant to communicate. Through its visual depiction of a lush world filled with fragrant damask roses, the image would have been expected to trigger a potent scent memory in knowledgeable contemporary viewers, allowing them to actually savour sensory aspects of the scene that the painting itself can only suggest.

Maharana Jagat Singh II celebrating the Festival of Flowers in the Gulab Bari Garden
‘Maharana Jagat Singh II celebrating the Festival of Flowers in the Gulab Bari Garden, by Raghunath, Udaipur, 1750

Even so, roses are not the only noteworthy flowers included in the image. On the central platform, between the strewn-about rose garlands and trays of loose roses, there are three finely detailed bunches of red corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and blue larkspur (Consolida ajacis). The combination of these two annual flowers represents the height of horticultural fashion in eighteenth-century North India, as attested in literary sources and across the visual and decorative arts. The contemporary Delhi-based courtier, poet and passionate gardening aficionado Ānand Rām ‘Mukhliṣ’ (1699-1750), for instance, wrote the following in the Parī’khānah or “House of Fairies,” the Persian text meant as an introduction for his personal album of paintings:

Ṭarrāḥī-i ibdā‘ash agar bih tartīb-i muraqqa‘-i bahār tavajjuhī namī farmūd, matn-i lālah’zār rā ḥāshiyah-’i nāfarmān kih tajvīz mī namūd? (8)

If the architecture of His [i.e. God’s] creation had not paid attention to the organization of the album of spring, who would have arranged margin notes of larkspur for the text of the corn poppy bed?

What makes this lovely image intelligible is an assumption of the ubiquity and familiarity of the combination of corn poppy and larkspur – Mukhliṣ expects the reader to know that they routinely go together. The same assumed knowledge on the part of the audience is the crux of the literary conceit at the heart of the following verse by the punning Urdu poet Shaikh Z̤uhūruddīn Shāh ‘Ḥātim’ (1699-1783):

Mujhe us shokh nāfarmān ne mārā apne ghar lā ke

Bajā hai merī turbat par rakho gar phūl lālā ke (9)

That flirtatious rebel, having taken me to his house, killed me

It would be fitting if you were to put corn poppy flowers on my grave

Beyond various common conventions of Persianate poetic traditions, such as the cruel beloved and the expired lover speaking from beyond the grave, the poetic twist here derives from the canonical pairing of larkspur and corn poppy. The word nāfarmān, rendered in the translation above as “rebel,” also serves as the name, in Urdu and Indian Persian, of larkspur. In Ḥātim’s play on this image, since the beloved is nāfarmān, his partner-turned-victim ought to be commemorated with the complementary corn poppy.

The primary reason for the inclusion of the corn poppies and larkspur in the painting of Jagat Singh II in the rose garden may well have been their popularity as garden flowers at the time, and the fact that like the roses, they point to that brief, beautiful moment of spring in northern India when the temperature is generally pleasant, the weather clear and sunny, and all the temperate-climate flowers in peak bloom, before the onset of the searing heat of the hottest months and subsequent rains and tropical exuberance of the monsoon. However, another historic text from the regions offers clues that there might be a bit more to it still. The Mīrzānāmah, known only from a manuscript held at the British Library, is a brief Persian-language treatise on the etiquette, activities, and interests appropriate for a mīrzā or aristocratic gentleman written by an anonymous author and tentatively dated to the second half of the seventeenth century (10). Regarding flowers and personal adornment, the author of the Mīrzānāmah opines the following:

…gul-i muṭlaq kih az ‘araq-i pāk-i mufakhkha-i mawjūdāt ast yakī rā tabarrukan bar sar biguzārad va gāhī shākhī az nāfarmān kih mushābahah bih par ast dar khilvat bar gūshah-i dastār mīrzā khvushnumāst. (11)

… he may place a single rose, which is the crystallization of the pure sweat of the exalted [i.e. the Prophet Muḥammad] on his head as a blessing and sometimes in private a sprig of larkspur, which looks like a plume, in the corner of a gentleman’s turban is becoming.

While the Mewar court was distinctively Hindu in religious orientation – our very painting of Jagat Singh II in the rose garden also features a sādhu or Hindu ascetic as well as shrines to the gods Śiva and Gaṇeṣa – some of these elite aesthetic ideals were likely nonetheless shared, given the notable presence of roses and larkspur in the painting. Beyond this championing of rose and larkspur, the Mīrzānāmah also states:

Mīrzā’ī nah tanhā dastah-i gul-i rangīn bar sar zadan ast va dastar-i nīmrang-i sabz va nīm sabz bar sar bastan va sarāsar dawr-i bāgh gashtan va khirāmān gardīdan ast balki dimāgh-i nazākat gāhī az tundī-i bū-yi gul duzdīdan va gūshah-i dāgh-i āzād-gul va ghubār-i nasīm-i ṣabā chīdan ast. (12)

Mīrzā’ī does not just consist of of putting a bunch of colorful flowers on one’s head, putting on a green-striped or greenish turban, and wandering around the garden, strutting about; rather, it is to occasionally turn one’s delicate sense of smell away from the strongly fragrant flowers and, delving to the innermost bottom of a solitary bloom, inhale the particles of a subtle spring breeze.

By complaining that to be a mīrzā is not just to wear a green-colored turban with flowers tucked into it and making a show of visiting gardens, the passage strongly implies that this was in fact a widespread perception of what it meant to be a refined gentleman. As explained in the second half of the passage, a man of proper sophistication is capable of going far beyond this performative enjoyment of the garden’s most obvious charms and immersing himself in the hidden essence of just one humble flower. He truly stops and smells the roses, as it were, and has the focus and appreciation to perceive and savor subtle pleasures that most will miss. The difference in sophistication and moral value between these two levels of garden enjoyment finds expression in the very texture of the prose. In the first half of the passage, the language is unadorned and straightforward, colloquial even, and the tone one of mockery. The second half of the statement, which claims to define true mīrzā’ī, by contrast, is an artful example of ornate prose, intricately crafted from layers of idiomatic expression, word play, metaphor, and precise botanical imagery. Building on the expression dimāgh duzdīdan, literally “to steal the nose” but with the idiomatic sense of “to turn away,” the author constructs an elaborate olfactory metaphor for the refined mind’s ability to transcend obvious, base pleasures in favor of something more subtle and sublime (13).

The dimāgh-i nazākat, or “nose of delicacy,” foregoes strongly scented flowers, normally so highly valued, and sniffs out something much more precious at the heart of a less overtly fragrant bloom. While the kind of flower is not indicated, the phrasing evokes a poppy through the mention of the dāgh or dark mark at the base of the petals, faintly discernible even on the tiny petals in the painting. This also fits perfectly with the subtle fragrance only to be inhaled deep inside the flower – a feature of the distinctive but faint, powdery scent of poppies –and the identification of that scent with the fragrance of the spring breeze corresponds to the time these flowers bloom, at least in South Asia. The word ghubār, meaning both “dust” and “particle,” does particularly elegant double duty here; on the one hand, it describes the scent molecules taken in by the delicate, refined sense of smell, which allow the mīrzā to perceive the subtle perfume of the flower and the spring breeze, and on the other it evokes the powdery pollen with which poppies are richly endowed (14).

In a rhetorical masterstroke, this sentence reveals its author to possess precisely the kind of deeper botanical understanding and attention to minute detail that it demands of the true mīrzā, while simultaneously requiring these same skills of the reader to fully comprehend and appreciate the line. Of course, imbibing the fleeting, hidden perfume of seemingly unscented flowers and catching a whiff of the ephemeral zephyr are in part a metaphor for the pursuit and appreciation of deeper understanding and esoteric truths that behoove a proper gentleman generally. Even so, this ought not be taken to mean that the emphasis on the correct appreciation of flowers is not also intended literally, in a world where garden outings and botanical expertise clearly signified culture and sophistication. This rich complex of olfactory associations and poetic as well as social significance produced through the depiction of just three specific flowers illustrates just how meaningful and important the floral elements of Mughal and Rajput paintings can be. The cluster of additional paintings in the ‘Rose’ section, likewise from Mewar or the neighboring Rajput states of Marwar and Sawar, represent iterations of the same genre, consisting of panoramic depictions of royal garden sojourn, but the plant palette involved varies. In the one most closely allied to the painting of Jagat Singh II in the rose garden, his predecessor Sangram Singh can be seen visiting the same site in much the same way. However, a somewhat broader view of the garden enabled by a horizontal format reveals an additional plantation of Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac), another powerfully fragrant flower, beyond the plots of roses. Another composition shows Sangram Singh’s father Amar Singh II in another garden, the Sarvar̥tu Vilās, celebrating the festival of Holi, surrounded by blazing beds of corn poppies, tall cypresses, and lush trees (15).

The somewhat later Marwari painting of Akhairaj presents a broader range of botanical referents for scent and taste, adding to the damask roses and Arabian jasmine – which are still prominently featured! – various types of citrus, bananas, grapevines, pomegranates, custard apples, mangoes, plumeria, oleander, and kewra or fragrant screwpine. A similarly diverse planting, as well as overall color scheme, appears in Pemji’s painting of Kunwar Ajit Singh reveling in a garden from Sawar. The plants here are not as finely rendered and stylized to a point where not all can be identified with specific real species, but there are mango trees, bananas, poppies, marigolds, roses, and a prominent shrub of pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima). Though not fragrant, this shrub introduced from Central America appears to have been a particular favorite of North Indian gardeners and artists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on account of it is feathery inflorescences of two-tone yellow and orange-red flowers, and perhaps also its ease of cultivation. Only the last painting in the set diverges in more than just the range of plants depicted. Rather than a single garden, this piece, once again from Mewar, depicts a whole landscape, a microcosm of early modern Rajputana with villages, temples, palace forts, and even an active siege.

The whole point of the painting, however, are the orderly garden plots throughout this panorama, and the horticultural activities taking place in them. They are filled with a variety of stylized green plants and flowers, trees and shrubs, and bananas and palm trees. While no specific plants can be identified with certainty, the image obviously suggests that the crops grown include not just grains, vegetables, and fruit, but also flowers grown on a large scale for ornament, ritual, or olfactant use. The verse inscribed at the top of the image is about practical gardening matters, further driving home the point that this is the central concern of the work. In a somewhat tentative transcription and approximate translation, it reads:

boṭe boṭe gulana ū̃sāran kī vāra karẽ pātare se põdā poṣa pānī pratipārevo |

naṭā naṭā gae pāya tinhai ṭekana de ũce karẽ ũce vaṭha gae tāhĩ jarur bāgaḍāravo |

phūlī phūlavāda aba leve ū̃mohi aura ghana darakhata eka ṭhora tẽnuṣāravo |

mālina kãu mahipatti ūdita vrata devī dāśa cyāra ghanīra tarahẽ ītano vicāravo ||

Around the various plants and flowers make a hedge; nourishing the plants from a vessel pour down water;

Ones that have become bowed, propping up their trunk with supports, make them upright; where banyans have grown tall, there for sure lay out a garden;

A blossoming flower garden now make even more enchanting; remove trees that are crowded [too close together] in one place;

A gardener bound by vow to the Goddess is proclaimed king of the earth; consider these four instructions to be manifold.

Aside from an affirmation of the conceptual centrality of horticultural matters in the world these paintings seek to construct, these lines are remarkable also for the integration of elite, Mughal- or at least broadly Persian-inspired ideas about gardens into the local understanding of the broader landscape. Though the language of the text is a form of the Mewari vernacular, the garden here appears as bāga, flowers as gulana, and trees as darakhata, from Persian bāgh, gul, and dirakht, respectively. Moreover, what has been translated above as four “instructions” appears in the original as tarahẽ, from Persian – and ultimately Arabic - ṭarḥ, a term which means “manner, method” but is also the Persianate technical term for a layout or architectural design. The verse thus appears to conclude with an invocation of the Persianate vocabulary of landscape design, suggesting just how porous the boundaries between Indo-Persian Mughal and Rajput elite culture, and between the courtly elite and the broader public, really were when it came to the physical spaces and material practices of gardens and gardening.

A painting depicting a bucolic village scene
‘A guide to arboriculture,’ Udaipur, c.1715-1720

The second section of Bagh-e Hind is themed ‘Narcissus,’ based on a seventeenth-century Mughal painting that is assumed to represent ‘A Prince Having an Audience.’ In the delicately colored image, two elegantly dressed young men sit opposite each other on a white marble terrace; the one on the left, evidently the host, is sitting on a carpet supported by a sumptuous gold bolster with a pattern of pink roses; a younger boy stands behind, fanning him with a peacock feather fan. All three figures have punch daggers prominently displayed in their belts. Yet the outstanding feature here are the stems of narcissus both of the young men are holding up, no doubt so they can periodically sniff them. These are Narcissus tazetta, the standard nargis of South Asia and the Persophone world, a species with multiple nodding flowers per stem, usually white with a yellow central cup, and a strong, sweet-spicy fragrance that was historically greatly appreciated, though some, especially in Western Europe and North America, find it unpleasant. This narcissus is one of the most beloved and complex symbols in Persian poetic tradition, as well as various literatures in other languages that have been influenced by Persian models, such as Urdu. The flowers, with their white outer ring of petals and differently-colored round inner cup, are likened to eyes, which renders the plant into a symbol of glances, gazes, and vision broadly. Since lovesickness was often taken to be very much a physical condition in the Persian or Urdu literary imagination, the yellow color of the flower’s center could evoke the jaundiced eye of a sick person, or else the “off” color of the flowers – vis-à-vis a real human eye – could signify the bloodshot eyes of an intoxicated person (16).

At the same time, the flower’s distinctive fragrance was very much part of its cultural significance, and poets frequently referred to it. It seems to have been understood at times as a natural mufarriḥ or exhilarant, a substance that “opens” and invigorates the respiratory system, heart, and mind according to the system of ṭibb-i yūnānī or “Greek” Indo-Persian medicine. All of these associations are artfully interwoven in a Persian letter attributed to the great Safavid poet Mīrzā Muḥammad ‘Alī ‘Sā’ib’ Tabrīzī (1592-1676) which is included in Majma‘ al-afkār, a voluminous compendium of exemplary inshā or epistolary prose by an unknown eighteenth-century compiler. Part of the letter, the sole objective of which is a request for a bouquet of narcissi, reads as follows:

Bih irsāl-i chand dastah az nawrustagān-i chaman-i ṣan‘ kih hunūz ghunchah-i chashmshān bar rū-yi tamāshā-yi nashiguftah bāshad bī dil va dimāghān tangnāy-i ḥajīm-i afshurdagī rā bih nuzhat-sarā-yi khuld tar dimāghī rahnamūnī kunad. (17)

By sending some bunches of the newly grown shoots of the parterre of creation that have not yet opened the buds of their eyes on the face of events, one gives refreshing guidance towards the pleasure palace of paradise to the heartless and despondent of the oppressive grave of depression.

There is the poetic equation of narcissus flowers with eyes – Sā’ib wants fresh, as yet unopened buds, which will gradually open and last longer in the vase, and he expresses his practical concern by saying that he would like shoots “that have not yet opened the buds of their eyes on the face of events,” semantically intertwining the process of flowering with the human act of looking. At the same time, there is a potent allusion to the narcissi as mufarriḥ, strengthening nose, brain, and heart – the things that the bī dil va dimāghān, “the heartless and despondent” as translated above but literally “those without heart and nose/brain,” are metaphorically said to lack. As Husain notes, the concept of the mufarriḥ and the medical-pharmacological category of mufarriḥāt is very relevant, if not central, to understanding early modern South Asian understandings of aestheticized smell and of spaces such as gardens, which are defined at least in part by their olfactory features (18). Moreover, familiarity with concepts like the mufarriḥ and other, closely related categories of olfactant drugs such as the munashshiṭ or “tonic,” helps to make sense of the elite culture of consumption of which they were a part and its reflection in literature and the visual arts.

A Mughal painting depicting two courtly gentlemen sitting on a terrace in the evening, each holds  a stem of narcissus flowers to their nose
‘A Prince Having an Audience,’ Mughal Empire, 17th century

The primary medical application of exhilarants in ṭibb-i yūnānī, even today, is to alleviate conditions associated with melancholy or black bile, meaning mood disorders and depression (19). This mood-elevating function is at the root of countless depictions of flowers whose scent was considered to act as a mufarriḥ in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century South Asian painting. The narcissi are visually linked to both fragrance and the act of smelling as well as the serenity and mental “openness” that the latter are believed to be able to induce. The flowering sprigs held up to the face speak to the former, further heightened in some of the paintings by the presence of further aromatics ready for olfactory consumption. In our painting, for instance, a bowl of fragrant jasmine buds sits in a bowl on the floor spread between the central figures. Meanwhile, the gentle smiles and furtive gaze of the pair of young men convey the elevated, receptive mood that a mufarriḥ is meant to produce. Fine fragrances, then, are understood to act – and perhaps even be necessary – as stimulants and social lubricants in a manner that straddles the medical, recreational, and aesthetic. As Emma Flatt observes with regard to the use of courtly food recipe variations in the medieval and early modern Deccan, “many of the options involved the addition of olfactory exhilarants such as clove, cardamom, musk, ambergris, or saffron, each of which had known physical, emotional and behavioural benefits, including freshening the breath, exhilarating the heart, promoting conversation and increasing lust” (20).

In combination with its more immediate literary association with aestheticized and eroticized acts of looking – both playful glances and the inquisitive or demanding gaze – the two narcissus nosegays in our painting thus serve to charge it with erotic expectation, allowing viewers to deduce another, implied layer of sensual pleasure beyond the visual and olfactory enjoyment of the narcissi and jasmine themselves directly evoked in the image. Just how blatant this link between narcissi and flirtatious eyes would have been to a poetically informed contemporary audience is driven home by any perusal of Persian or Urdu poetry from early modern South Asia. Here, just two Urdu verses that gracefully combine the narcissus’ ocular associations with plays on its distinctive cup-on-a-platter shape will suffice. The great Mīr Taqī ‘Mīr’ (1723-1810) wrote:

Kāsah-’i cashm le ke jūn nargis

Ham ne dīdar kī gadā’ī kī (21)

Taking up the mendicant’s bowl of the eye, like the narcissus,

We took to begging with our glances.

And the slightly later Shāh Naṣīr (1756-1838) quipped:

Khiyāl ānkhon kā terī jabkih ai jānānah rakhte hain

To jūn nargis har ik angusht par paimānah rakhte hain (22)

When I think of your eyes, oh beloved,

Then, like the narcissus, I balance a wine cup on each finger.

In each case, the narcissus stands for the eye as the means of flirtation, entreaty, and intoxication – the latter powerfully reinforced by the real flower’s distinctive fragrance and the cultural perception of it is a de-facto antidepressant, tonic, and even aphrodisiac.

The other paintings in the ‘Narcissus’ section feature similar compositions – of men sitting at leisure on garden terraces – but there is variation in the the range of botanical olfactants included. One closely parallels the core painting, featuring a similar pair of young men, a sprig of narcissus, and bowls of jasmine buds. However, it also has pān or betel leaf (Piper betle), an edible aromatic and mild intoxicant that was highly valorized as a mark of cultural sophistication and elegant hospitality – and the consumption of which was commonly eroticized, as evidenced by this Urdu verse by Najmuddīn Shāh Mubārak ‘Ābrū’ (1685-1733), which links the eating of pān to a fairly explicit suggestion of French kissing:

Tujh khat̤t̤-i pusht-i lab men tis kā sukhan hu’ā sabz

Is kā zabān dahan men mānand-i barg-i pān hai (23)

From the beard sprouting around your lips speech has turned verdant,

His tongue is like a betel leaf in the mouth.

In another particularly sumptuous image, the whole bouquets of narcissi, platters of jasmine buds, and boxes full of betel leaf packets are supplemented by a bowl of pink roses and mixed bouquets of poppies and other flowers, all against a backdrop of blooming lotuses, while in further paintings the roses alone are featured as both the nosegays being sniffed by some or all of the seated gentlemen and piled up in bowls or as garlands in front of them. Throughout, however, these flowers and their fragrance are integral to the depiction of the mood of luxury, enjoyment – and in some cases romance – in these paintings. The repetition and combination of narcissi, roses, and jasmine across this and the previous section also hints at the central cultural role of these flowers and their scents in the early modern Indian imaginary of gardens and the good life, as hinted at in this couplet from a description of a fictitious garden by the Urdu poet Mīr Ḥasan:

Caman se bharā bāgh gul se caman

Kahīn nargis-o-gul kahīn yasaman (24)

The garden full of flowerbeds, the flowerbeds full of flowers

Here narcissi and roses, there jasmine.

Here, the joint mention of these flowers practically summarizes the idea of a luxurious garden and its pleasures, as it perhaps does in many of the paintings that form part of our Bagh-e Hind.

The heroine sits in a discreet lush bower awaiting her lower, surrounded by fragrant oleander, kewra and magnolia plants
‘Kamod Ragini,’ Kota, c. 1770-1775

The next two sections of the exhibit, themed ‘Smoke’ and ‘Iris,’ respectively, feature similarly resonant and redolent visual references to these and various other olfactants and botanical elements across a rich set of paintings. The ‘Smoke’ section contrasts various versions of a distinctive genre composition of a group of women lighting sparklers and watching fireworks on a garden terrace at night, while the paintings grouped under ‘Iris’ are lush spring-time garden scenes in a particularly detailed and realistic Mughal idiom that in addition to irises feature a great variety of other plants, including poppies and narcissi and numerous kinds of trees. To conclude, however, we should focus briefly on the core painting for the fifth and final section, the one titled ‘Kewra.’ Kewra refers to the fragrant screwpine (Pandanus odorifer), or more specifically its white-flowered forms – yellow-flowered forms were traditionally distinguished under the name ketakī. It is a shrub or small tree with long, spiky leaves that likes to grow near water. Male plants produce large inflorescences with a distinctive musky-sweet fragrance. They are not very commonly seen in gardens today, and commercial production is almost entirely centered in northeastern India. In earlier times, however, the plant and its scent were widely celebrated, and it was frequently referenced in poetry and included in virtually every garden description (25).

In our painting, produced at the Rajput court of Kota in the second half of the eighteenth century, a young woman meant to symbolize the musical mode Kamod Rāginī is shown in an ostensibly natural landscape, waiting for her lover. She sits on an elaborate bed of pink, white, and yellow flower petals, suggestive of roses, jasmine, and marigolds, and extends her arm towards an oleander bush (Nerium oleander) that leans towards her with full clusters of pink flowers. Kewra shrubs encircle the lower half of her bed of flowers, at the edge of a pond, in an arrangement that seems to acknowledge the plants’ preference for wet conditions. Fat white buds are emerging from the tip of every kewra shoot. They are interspersed with a low-growing herb topped by rounded clouds of purplish flowers; while it is hard to say for certain, this is likely meant to represent patchouli (Pogostemon cablin), another richly fragrant plant. To the right the velvety, deep red inflorescences of cockscomb (Celosia cristata) reach into the picture, and the woodland behind our heroine features campaka trees (Magnolia champaca), revered for the intensely sweet fragrance of their yellow blooms, fragrant white plumeria and a banana plant with a large bud just emerging, symbolic of the state of anticipation inherent in the scene. The painting very deliberately creates a world of superlative floral and olfactory exuberance, an idyll composed almost entirely of flowers and fragrance. Yet while the plants are real, identifiable botanical species – and the power of the image is largely predicated on this very fact, since it is only the recognition of the plants that conjures up their rich scents – the wildness of the scene is a romantic fantasy.

The palette of plants included largely reflects that of the contemporary elite garden, or at least an ideal vision of it – all the more so in the relatively arid landscape of present-day Rajasthan. The plumeria, in fact, is an exotic, relatively recently introduced to the subcontinent from Mexico and the Caribbean. Indeed, for much of the eighteenth century paintings produced in Kota and the neighboring Bundi are among the only documentation of the plant’s presence in South Asia. Considering all of this, it is illuminating to contemplate the piece in conjunction with a poetic description of a garden produced around the same time, just a little bit to the northwest. Somnāth, a court poet of the Jāṭ rulers of Bharatpur, writes the following in his Brajbhāṣā account of the palace complex at Deeg constructed in 1772:

Aru nagara kūla subāga / Phūlai phalai cahu bhāga

Ketaki gulāba cameli / Aru ketikī bara beli

Karanā juhī karabīra / Saugandharā iva hīra

Gulakhairu aru gulalāla / Rabi mukhya guṛahara nāla

Sata varganā karmāna / Gula bāsa sobha nidhāna (26)

And in the town a lake with beautiful gardens / Blooming and fruiting in four parts

Screwpine, rose, and camelī / And coiling upon the screwpine a vine

Bitter orange, jasmine, and oleander / Like fragrant jewels

Wallflowers and corn poppies / Sunflowers beside hibiscus

A heap of African marigolds / A splendid treasure of flowers and fragrance

Not only are many of the same flowers united here in an explicitly horticultural setting, but specific emphasis is given to the screwpine, in this case yellow-flowered ketakī rather than white-flowered kewra. The idea of fragrance more broadly, too, is alluded to repeatedly, positing it as a defining characteristic of these flowers and the garden as a whole. The painting of Kamod Rāginī, as well as the other ones in the section which feature similar compositions of beautiful women in “wild” settings, with a shifting cast of plant and animal species, thus represent an idealized vision of nature of sorts, a fantasy rooted in the floral and olfactory realities of contemporary horticulture.

Of course, to some extent each of the paintings featured in Bagh-e Hind constitutes precisely such a fantasy, of an aesthetic ideal of perfect spaces and peak bloom, material abundance and intoxicating fragrance. Yet the way these visions are communicated – brought to life, really, for a knowledgeable viewer – is through their thoughtful, specific reflection of particular elements of real material culture, chief among them plants, garden spaces, and aspects of horticultural practice. A familiarity with these, and the web of literary associations and cultural practices in which they were embedded at the time, would have made them viscerally evocative to contemporary viewers, allowing them to access the bhāva or feeling of the scenario the artist was trying to capture and convey. Hopefully, in perusing the galleries of Bāgh-e Hind, and in enjoying our scent translations of these works, our audience will in turn be able to recapture some of that world of multisensory wonder and enjoyment.



  1. On the issue of figural representation in Islamic art, see Christiane Gruber, ed., The Image Debate: Figural Representation in Islam and Across the World (London: Gingko, 2019), and Kjeld von Folsach and Joachim Meyer, The Human Figure in Islamic Art: Holy Men, Princes, and Commoners, trans. Martha Gaber Abrahamsen (Copenhagen: The David Collection, 2017).

  2. Dipti Khera, The Place of Many Moods: Udaipur’s Painted Lands and India’s Eighteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020), 5.

  3. Khera, The Place of Many Moods, 175.

  4. James McHugh, Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  5. Ali Akbar Husain, Scent in the Islamic Garden: A Study of Literary Sources in Persian and Urdu, 2nd ed. (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012).

  6. McHugh, Sandalwood and Carrion, 108-134, and Husain, Scent in the Islamic Garden, 87-113.

  7. Kavita Singh, ed., Scent upon a Southern Breeze: The Synaesthetic Arts of the Deccan (Mumbai: Marg, 2018), 25-55.

  8. Ānand Rām ‘Mukhliṣ,’ “Parī’khānah,” Maqālāt-i ‘Ārif, ed. Ārif Nawshāhī (Tihrān: Bunyād-i Mawqūfāt-i Duktur Maḥmūd Afshār, 2007), 746.

  9. Shaikh Z̤uhūruddīn Shāh ‘Ḥātim,’ Dīvānzādah, ed. ‘Abdulḥaq (Dillī: Neshanal Mishan fār Menuskripṭs, 2011), 383.

  10. Mīrzānāmah, 1739, Manuscript, Persian Manuscripts Add. 16, 817, British Library.

  11. Mīrzānāmah, 1739, Manuscript, Persian Manuscripts Add. 16, 817, British Library, fol. 95v.

  12. Mīrzānāmah, 1739, Manuscript, Persian Manuscripts Add. 16, 817, British Library, fol. 90r-v.

  13. Dimāgh here functions in its modern Persian meaning of nose, rather than the sense of “brain” that has been retained in South Asian languages.

  14. For a discussion of the understanding in South Asia of smell as involving physical contact with minute odor particles carried by the wind as evidenced in Sanskrit literature, see James McHugh, Sandalwood and Carrion, 25-29.

  15. Khera discusses this painting in detail; see Khera, The Place of Many Moods, 57-59.

  16. A good general introduction to the elaborate system of symbols and referents in Persian and Persian-influenced literatures can be found in Annemarie Schimmel, A Two-Colored Brocade: The Imagery of Persian Poetry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

  17. Majma‘ al-afkār, ed. Chandar Shīkhar (Dillī: Neshanal Mishan fār Menuskripṭs, 2016), 979.

  18. Husain, Scent in the Islamic Garden, 71-75; on the role of perfumes and medical understandings of smell according to yūnānī or “Greek” Indo-Persian medicine in elite Persianate culture generally, see also Emma Flatt, The Courts of the Deccan Sultanates: Living Well in the Persian Cosmopolis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 60-73, and “Social Stimulants: Perfuming Practices in Sultanate India” in Scent Upon a Southern Breeze: The Synaesthetic Arts of the Deccan, ed. Kavita Singh (Mumbai: Marg Foundation, 2018), 28-29.

  19. See, for instance, Noman Anwar, N. Zaheer Ahmed, T. Shahida, K. Kabiruddin, and Hafiz Aslam, “The Role of Mufarrehat (Exhilarants) in the Management of Depression: Evidence Based Approach” in Journal of Psychiatry 20, no. 5 (2017): 1-5.

  20. Flatt, “Social Stimulants,” 34.

  21. Accessible here:

  22. Accessible here:

  23. Accessible here:

  24. Mīr Ghulām Ḥasan, Masnaviyāt-i Mīr Ḥasan (Lakhna’ū: Tej Kumār Pres, 1966), 30.

  25. Due to vibrant historic links of trade and culture, Pandanus odorifer and its fragrance are also part of the garden and fragrance culture of Yemen; see, for instance, Dinah Jung, An Ethnography of Fragrance: the Perfumery Arts of ‘And/Lahj (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 82-83.

  26. Somnāth, Somanātha Granthāvalī, ed. Sudhākar Pāṇḍey (Vārāṇasī: Nāgarī Pracāriṇī Sabhā, 1969), 820-1.

A scene depicting the pavilion on lake Pichhola in Udaipur
Pavilion on Lake Pichhola (Jagmandir Island) Udaipur, mid 18th century

Published 1st March 2022




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