The authorship and significance of the Nuj[]]m al-'ul[]m: a sixteenth-century astrological encyclopedia from Bijapur.

Author:Flatt, Emma

On the 17th of August 1570, a scribe in the kingdom of Bijapur completed an ambitious, highly complex, and sumptuously illustrated work on astrology and astral magic. (1) Housed in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the manuscript is not identified by a title in the text, but takes its name from a note inscribed on the first folio, which describes it as the Nuj[]m al-'ul[]m ("Stars of the Sciences"). (2) To date, the Nuj[]m al-'ul[]m has attracted scholarly attention for the richness and spectacular nature of its illustrations some four hundred which depict a dazzling variety of angels, anthropomorphized planets, zodiac signs and degrees, talismans, magical spells, astrological tables and horoscopes, tantric goddesses, horses, elephants, and weapons. (3) Following brief notices by art historians such as Stella Kramrisch, Hermann Goetz, Douglas Barrett, and Mark Zebrowski, the author of the Chester Beatty Library catalogue, Linda York Leach, compiled a comprehensive description of the Nuj[]m's miniatures, together with the miniatures of a second, more crudely executed copy of the Nuj[]m al-'ulam, also housed in the Chester Beatty Library and tentatively dated to 1660-80. (4) More recently, Deborah Hutton's insightful and detailed analyses of several of the Nuj[]m miniatures have opened a window onto the diverse cultural influences circulating at the Bijapur court. (5)

The brilliance and abundance of the Nuj[]m's paintings have tended to overshadow the equally interesting details of the manuscript's text, which has suffered from disproportionate scholarly neglect, even in a field that has been characterized by a lack of sustained scholarly interest in the textual side of such documents. The continuing predominance of Persian chronicles as the main source for the study of the medieval Deccan and the general scholarly indifference to astrology and magic as fields of serious historical inquiry into medieval Indian history have doubtless contributed to obscuring the importance of the Nuj[]m as a historical document. The recent "discovery" of a third copy of the Nuj[]m al-'ul[]m in the library of the Wellcome Institute in London and the digitization of several pages of that library's manuscript may well stimulate wider interest in this fascinating work. (6)

In this article I will present new evidence for the authorship of the Nuj[]m al-'ul[]m, which have discovered through the course of my own study of the three abovementioned manuscripts. I will first present this new evidence and then discuss the intended scope and extant content of the Nuj[]m al-'ul[]m. The analysis presented here is necessarily preliminary: the Nuj[]m al-'ul[]m was the result of an encyclopedic endeavor informed by multifarious sources and esoteric learning, much of the significance of which I am only slowly beginning to understand. Nevertheless, in highlighting this discovery, I attempt to refocus scholarly interest on the text rather than simply on the paintings of this complex manuscript.


Art historians have been unanimous in attributing the provenance of the Nuj[]m to Bijapur, primarily on the basis of the paintings, which display stylistic similarities with known examples of the early "Bijapur school." (7) While none of the extant manuscripts of the Nuj[]m possesses a complete colophon, the date 978 (1570-71 c.E.) is inscribed three times in the earlier Chester Beatty Nuj[]m al-'ul[]m and once in the later Chester Beatty copy. It is often assumed that this is the date of the completion of the work, but it is worth bearing in mind that the date may refer to the completion of the copying of this particular manuscript, while the composition of the text may have taken place before that date. (8)

The date and style of the paintings led to suggestions that the work was commissioned by the Bijapur sultan 'Al[] '[]dil sh[]h (r. 1557-79) or a member of his court. This hypothesis was strengthened by the length of the volume, the quality and quantity of its miniatures, the extensive use of gold in the manuscript, and the number of painters employed--all factors that seemed to suggest a royal patron.

The attribution to 'Al[] '[]dil sh[]h, however, was complicated by the existence of the abovementioned note inscribed on the first folio, which reads in full: "The book of the Stars of the Sciences by order of the emperor of Bijapur, Ibrahim jagat guru, bought by Nawab Sayyid Rustam Khan." (9) While the use of jagat guru, a commonly used epithet of Ibrahim '[]dil Shah II, confirms that the manuscript was at one stage in the possession of the royal library of the Bijapur sultanate, the fact that the hook is said to have been "bought" by Nawab Sayyid Rustam Khan on the orders of Ibrahim implies that the book may not have originally been produced by the '[]dil Sh[]h[] k[]rkh[]na (workshop); had it been, there would have been no reason for it to have been purchased by the sultan. (10) On the other hand, this inscription is hardly conclusive evidence against the Bijapur origin of the book, since the book might have been lost, stolen, or sold during the turbulent period of regencies (1580-90) that followed 'Al[]'s death, and reacquired by Ibrahim at a later date. (11) Moreover, as Leach emphasizes, the entire attribution to 'Al[]'s royal karkhana was itself speculative since "the author [...] does not specifically state that he was in the royal circle nor dedicate his treatise to a sultan. ..." (12) Thus, she conjectures, the book could have been originally compiled by a Bijapur nobleman in the 1570s, and only later purchased for the royal library by Ibrahim.13 As a result the inscription failed to shake the scholarly consensus that the manuscript had Bijapur origins.


Although the manuscript contains neither a full colophon nor an authorial claim in the introduction, the two most likely places where a Persian author might identify himself, a close reading of the text unexpectedly reveals at least two explicit authorial attributions and a third indirect corroboration. These confirm not only that the manuscript is of Bijapur ori-gin, but also that the author was, or at least claimed to be, none other than 'Al[] '[]dil Shah himself, the reigning sultan of Bijapur. (14) The first instance refers to the author by name, the second refers to him by his commonly used titles, and the third confirms the author's abode in the sultanate of Bijapur without naming him. As such, the first authorial claim explicitly establishes 'Al[]'s authorship while the other two claims, by themselves insufficient to estab-lish 'Al[]'s authorship beyond any doubt, provide confirmation.

The first attribution occurs quite suddenly near the start of the eighth section (fasl) of the second chapter. This chapter provides brief descriptions of the movements of the nine heavenly bodies, including the sun and moon, five planets, and two phenomena the ascending and descending nodes of the moon known as ra's (head) and dhanab (tail); (15) followed by lengthier anthropomorphized descriptions of these bodies, the related zodiac signs (buruj), lunar mansions (manazil), and degrees (darajat) of each planet; and the fixed and moving stars. The anthropomorphized descriptions of each planet commence with general details of the planet's nature, followed by a list of objects associated with or "liked by" the planet, including food, drink, types of trees and flowers, types of people, regions, rivers, musical instruments, and so on. The eighth section of the second chapter is dedicated to the planet Zuhra (Venus) and follows the pattern seen in earlier sections of the chapter describing other planets, commencing by detailing Zuhra's general characteristics. The planet is said to be the smaller auspicious one, female, and nocturnal, and the names of its father (Artavi Chushm Bhar Cua) and mother (Kalbana) are given. The author continues:

The place of her birth is in a fort (qa'cat on [the summit of] an extremely high mountain, which is in the jurisdiction (quicuttrav) and environs of the inhabited and cultivated country. The writer (raging) of these traditions and the narrator (n[]qil) of these problems and stories, the servant of the people of the house of the Prophet of Allah, is named 'Al[], known as '[]dil sh[]h. The name of that fort is Bhura [?] and it is in the jurisdiction and among the villages of the Malivar [?] and since it is related that on that mountain there is a cave, inside that cave Bhar Gila saw her birth at the time of the second watch of Friday. Her country (mulk) and region (vilayat) are from the frontiers/confines of Bhura [?] to this side of the fast river Bhadru [?]. (16) As can be seen, the first authorship claim is embedded within a passage that, like much of the Nuj[]m, tightly interweaves Indic, Islamicate, and local beliefs and traditions about astrology, geography, and the cosmos. The complexity of this passage is enhanced by the uncertain orthography of the place names and by smudges on crucial pieces of information in both Chester Beatty manuscripts, and therefore requires some explanation. According to this passage Venus, or Zuhra, is said to have been born in the fort of Bhur[], which is located on a high mountain in what seems to be an area called the Malivar, and as a result possesses found between the fort of Bhur[] and the banks of a fast-flowing river called Bhur[]. The fort of Bhur[] seems to be somehow connected with the Bijapur sultan, 'Al[] '[]dil sh[]h I, who has written the manuscript.

The idea that a planet could be born on a terrestrial mountain draws from much older Hindu understandings of the creation, according to...

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