A Mughal image commemorating a spring evening shared between two male companions leads back to the thirteenth century—a journey back into an openness of artistic expression that stands in stark contrast to our own times.
The men are framed by two trees, reflecting their bodily forms. Floral symbols signal the sensuality of the beloved, such as rose-like cheeks and a turbaned head, bowed like a tulip. His friend, the famed poet Sa’di of Shiraz, discharges flowers from his groin area, evoking male ejaculation, with the flowers themselves being visual metaphors of beauty and lust. The poet leans forward, the art historian Mika Natif has perceptively noted, reaching out to his young lover with his right hand over his heart, the left guiding the viewer to his groin.
Even today, some three and a half centuries after that image was painted on Sa’di’s Gulistan, the image has lost none of its power. To understand the palimpsest—a manuscript made up of layers, superimposed on the text—leads us back to an age of openness in artistic expression that stands in stark contrast to our own.
The poet, Gulistan records, was one night “reflecting on times gone by and regretting [his] wasted life.” He decides it’s time to withdraw from society and “embrace silence”. When the news reaches his old friend— his “comrade in the camel-litter” and “closet companion”— he visits him “spreading out the carpet of affection”.
Pained, the friend persuades the poet to step out into the lovely spring day. The roses are on rich display. The bulbuls are signing.
And so the times passes, until late at night the poet finds himself walking in a flower garden with another friend. It’s a “blithe and pleasing” spot and images of verdancy and union abound: charmingly intertwined trees from which “sang each melodious bird”, “many-coloured tulips” and “the whispering breeze” that makes a “motley carpet” of flowers.
But morning comes: “The inclination to return prevail[s] over [their] wish to stay.” The poet notices that his friend has gathered flowers and fragrant herbs in his lap to commemorate their time in the garden.
Realising the ephemerality of his friend’s precious mementos, the poet is reminded of the sages’ counsel: “we should not fix our affections on that which has no endurance”. He tells him, “To the rose of the flower-garden there is… no continuance; nor is there faith in the promise of the rose garden”.
Befuddled, the friend asks, “What then is my course”? The poet promises his companion another gulistan (rose-garden): “I am able to compose a book, the ‘Garden of Roses’ whose leaves the rude hand of the blast of autumn cannot affect”.
The friend drops the flowers from his lap and takes hold of “the skirt of the [poet’s] garment”. He reminds him, “When the generous promise, they perform”.
The poet kept his promise and composed the Gulistan in 1258. A contemporary of Jalal al-Din Rumi, from the province of Fars in the southwest region of present-day Iran, Sa’di was about 50 years old at the time, and died circa 1291.
As prophesied, the text lived on.
TEXTS AND CONTEXTS
Two centuries after its composition, Gulistan was copied in a luxurious manuscript produced at a royal Timurid workshop in Herat (present-day western Afghanistan) in 1468-69. Art historian Mika Natif provides a fascinating account of how this manuscript travelled and accrued layers of meaning: It first made its way to Safavid Iran, arguably the cultural centre of the world, and a haven for artistic patronage.
In the sixteenth century, it reached the Mughal royal library in the Indian subcontinent. For artists and artworks alike, this movement was not unusual. Art historian Abolala Soudavar has analysed three waves of artistic migration from Safavid Iran to Mughal India between 1544 and 1585.
Painting workshops in Mughal India were hotbeds for prolific creative activity and intercontinental exchanges. Influences ranged from the Ajanta and Western Indian schools, the Safavid and Timurid art traditions, and the European Renaissance painters.
This cross-cultural commerce— or “Mughal Occidentalism”, to borrow Natif’s term— was a sign of civilizational maturity and assurance: “It took the Mughals’ self-confidence, and a curiosity and openness, for these ideas to foster porous artistic interactions with a variety of traditions”.
Natif’s trail leads back to the Europeans— traders, ambassadors, missionaries— who had arrived on India’s coasts during the sixteenth century. In particular, Jesuit missionaries from Portugal, Spain, and Italy brought luxury objects such as books, prints, and paintings that enabled intellectual and artistic exchanges as much as commercial ones.
GULISTAN AS A PALIMPSEST
In the seventeenth century, the original Timurid illustrations were painted over with Mughal ones. Among other possible explanations for overpainting such as water damage, Soudavar contends that it was probably motivated by a desire to overshadow Safavid work with the finest of imperial Mughal painting.
Govardhan — active circa 1596 to 1645 in the ateliers of emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan – illustrated the opening scene of Gulistan, showing the poet Sa‘di and his companion in the rose garden. For Natif, the seemingly “straightforward composition reveals itself to the discerning eye as a homoerotic image,” and “a public memento of a post-coital adventure in the garden of love.”
Neither the story of Gulistan’s composition nor its illustration by Govardhan are standalone depictions of same-sex intimacy. Gulistan’s chapter “On Love and Youth” contains several other stories of love and union between two male companions, some of which are believed to be autobiographical.
Another illustration in the same manuscript by Govardhan’s contemporary Lalchand shows a post-coital moment between a judge caught drunk in bed with a blacksmith’s son.
Nor was Gulistan an exception in Persian literature at the time. Rumi also wrote of relations with the Sufi teacher Shams al-Din of Tabriz.
Historians of the period have pointed to a contrast between the treatment of homosexuality under Islamic law and its depiction in literature. The beloved in much of Persian love poetry is a young man—often pubescent or adolescent—and the lover often an older and/or socially superior man.
Gulistan’s nineteenth-century translators were uneasy with its homoerotic content. In another act of writing over, the English, German, French, and Latin translations either omitted objectionable sections or changed the sex of the beloved, thereby adding another layer to the palimpsest.
As Natif points out, “Ironically, this homoeroticism is perhaps more provocative in today’s world than it appeared to Sa‘di’s contemporary readers, who relished the religio-profane melange of what may be autobiographical homosexual anecdotes, mystical stories, and devotional prose”.
We seem very far from the self-confidence, curiosity, and openness that characterized Govardhan’s visual interpretation of Sa‘di’s story. Despite the legal victory in reading down Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code last year, popular media — rare exceptions notwithstanding — keeps regurgitating cliched, insensitive, and under-nuanced narratives of same-sex love. Bowdlerized readings of history abound.
But we need only to peel a few layers of accrued meaning to glimpse at the enduring promise of Gulistan.
It’s spring time.
Swati Chawla is a historian of South Asia and a fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies
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