PEOPLES ON TREES

Issue #2 • 57

Shukur Askarov, Architect

Akbar’s Tree-Throne. “Yak Sutun Khona” (Room with One Column) – this is another name By developing the ancient visions of a man’s place in the world, the Quran and the Sufi concepts inspired the artists to create the miniatures devoted to the perfect man – insoni komil. The images of peoples on trees unfold a remarkable evolution of the ancient tradition and convincingly explain the architecture of their previously mysterious structures and thrones inside them. The images of insoni komil were spread up to the onset of the new times, proving that the idea of the perfect person is timely for any society.
World, Tree and Human Being. According to a legend, in the ancient Persian world there was a mountain Hara rising from the Earth’s center up to the Sun, nearby a Tree with many seeds was growing, and between them there was a place for a human being. The axis of the Mongol world ran through the Palace of Genghis Khan in his capital of Karakorum, and this axis was marked by the World Tree growing in the courtyard, – and that was a work of a captive European silversmith. The Nourished by the juices of the earth and nurtured by the heavenly grace, the Tree was considered since the time immemorial a concentration of power. “The tree represents strength, verticality, a link between the underground, earth and heaven. The tree means the axis of the world” (1). On that Tree a human being was expressing himself as the center of the Universe, the perfect man – insoni komil.
Ladder of Spirit. The Holy Quran reads: “God is the light… It is lit from a blessed olive tree” (2). “It is God who has created seven heavens, and earth as many. His commandment descends through them” (3). “If you find their (the unbelievers – Sh.A.) aversion hard to bear, seek if you can a chasm in the earth or a ladder to the sky by which you may bring them a sign. Had God pleased He would have given them guidance, one and all” (4). “If we opened for the unbelievers a gate in heaven and they ascended through it higher and higher… ” (5). “Therein are bashful virgins… sheltered in their tents” (6) “…amid gardens and fountains… We shall wed them (the righteous – Sh.A.) to dark-eyed houris” (7). “God… He is the Lord of the Ladders, by which the angels and the Spirit will ascend to him in one day: a day whose space is fifty thousand years”(8).
The XV century Herat school miniature “The Tree of Houris” (9) depicts a tree with a ladder into its crown, into a heavenly world of angels – these clever and perfect creatures (pic. 1). On the tree’s strong branches a 6-sided seat – “sufa” – is placed. The ladder leading to the sufa has two arched gates at its ends. The composition is inhabited with the houris – the beauties of large and straight wings. A houri with the other playing the musical instrument “dutar” sit on the sufa while the third at the ladder’s upper end serves meal. In front of the tree, from left to right, the other houris are present: one with a bowl, two chatting, and a dancer with a musician. The subject of the miniature is direct illustration to the Koran in accordance with the idealistic Sufi poetry. A Sufi, by the way, is presented in this miniature as an only man – a dervish – shabby and horrifying, spellbound and gazing from the right.
Ladder to Rebirth. Sufism, as an ideological pillar of the rulers, was transforming the tenets of the Quran into the conception of The Man Perfect. “The Almighty created the angels and conferred reason upon them, and He created the beasts and conferred passion upon them, and He created man and conferred reason and passion upon him. He whose reason prevails over his passion is higher than the angels, and he whose passion prevails over his reason is lower than the beast” (10). These words of the Prophet Muhammad were interpreted by Sufism as follows: “Every form that you see has its original in the divine world. If form passes away, it is of no consequence, because its original was from eternity. Be not grieved that every form that you see, every mystical saying that you have heard will pass away. The fountainhead is always bringing forth water. Since neither ceases, why should you complain? Consider this spirit as a fountain; rivers flow from it. Put regret out of your thoughts, and keep on drinking from the rivulet. Do not be afraid. The water is limitless.
When you came into the world of created beings, a ladder was set before you, so that you might pass out of it. At first you were inanimate, then you became a plant; afterward you were changed into animal. At last you became human, possessed of knowledge, intelligence, and faith. Next, you will become an angel. Then you will have finished with this world, and your place will be in the heavens. Be changed also from the station of an angel. Pass into that mighty deep, so that the one drop, which is yourself, may become a sea” – Jaloliddin Rumi (1207-1273) (11).
Amir Temur’s Tree-Throne. Amir Temur recollected: “I saw a dream, that I was sitting under a shady tree, the top of which reached to the heavens… …the interpreters expounded the dream thus, “you are the tree, the leaves and branches are your posterity, who shall be supporters of your state and sovereignty, and will benefit mankind by their benevolence” (12). In 1374, Temur lamented over the death of his elder son Mukhammad Jahonghir: «…such a tree, the support of my empire, should have been broken down. But I comforted myself by reflecting that two verdant branches of my son still flourished, the first, the Prince Per Muhammed, to whom I gave the title of his father, Jehangyr; the other, Muhammed Sultan, to both of whom I assigned a high place of honour in my public courts» (13).
A suburb in the northern part of Samarkand, along the slopes of Afrasiab and the Obi Rahmat canal, was a site of the nomadic camp – Amir Temur’s horde. His tent that used to be called borgokh (residence), had a square plan, with 40 pillars, and a fabric-made dome supported by 12 posts. The saw-toothed tower rose through the dome and had long poles at the corners, each adorned by copper apple and moon – so that the tent was likened to a castle. Inside, between the pillars, was a ladder by which peoples climbed onto the top of the tower, to Temur’s throne” (14). The symmetry of this tent symbolized the center of the world, its dome – the dome of the skies, while the tall pillars with apples – the world tree, connecting the earth and the heavens. The tent was graphically reconstructed at the end of the XX century (15).
Shah Takhmasp on Tree. The Tabriz, 1530, miniature by Kamoliddin Behzad “Shah Takhmasp on Tree” (16) looks like a barely visible linear sketch of a real life scene, depicting a young Persian Shah and his confidants. The Shah got by the ladder into the crown of the young “chinar” tree and slightly sat on a promptly made square platform amongst the tree’s branches. Towards the Shah a servant boy ascends on the ladder. Under the tree, a courtier tries to helpfully reach the Shah with a water jug which was brought by another boy. On the right, a stout man in a turban and decorated by a dagger and a sword, apparently a captain of the Palace guard is looking from the right to them. And, finally, the reason of the young Shah’s going outdoors can be understood by the figures of the two youngsters in the foreground. The keeper of a slender horse of the Shah takes a nap leaning against it, and next to them, another adolescent with a falcon on his hand is also expecting the Shah, impatiently looking upwards. In this scene Takhmasp is represented as insoni komil and this status is stressed by the platform he is sitting on.
Humayun and Akbar on Tree. Per Humayun’s request, Shah Takhmasp of Iran, released the talented miniaturist Abdul Samad to India where he became a favorite called Abdus Samad Shirin Qalam which means Sweet Pencil. His miniature “Young Akbar shows a picture to his father Humayun” (17) was made in the year 1555 when Humayun returned from Iranian exile back to India. It depicts the 47-year old Humayun (a year ahead of his tragic death) in seclusion with his 13-year old son on the octahedral sufa in the crown of the tree beside the two-storied pavilion of a garden (pic. 2). The miniature repeats Bekhzod’s compositional canon but, for the first time, the tree of the pavilion’s height divides the miniature composition in two. The Temurids considered the height a regal rank: in addition to the octahedral sufa, Humayun towers over his son sitting, as Shah Takhmasp, on the square sufa. The walled, with gate, garden as well as the pavilion are full of guests. Music, songs, arriving folks. The “plov” meal cooked in the garden is passed over the ladder to the pavilion’s second floor and from there to the father and the son. The tree as the place of Their Majesties is clearly singled out. This fascinating miniature surely depicts a real situation, for in the span of just ten further years these bridges connecting the pavilion with the sufa-takht on the tree will be ordered by Akbar for his throne in his city of Fotikhpur Sikri.
The Tree-Throne of Akbar. Of Akbars Devoni Khos (Palace for Private Receptions) at the north of his palace complex in Fotikhpur Sikri. “One Column” is Akbar’s stone throne shaped as a tree; it is 4,5 m high, with serpentine branches, and with four bridges to the Room’s corners. The Emperor’s ministers were awaiting there to be summoned to him. The ancient axis mundi is transformed into the tree of the state. From this throne Akbar prayed to the Sun, like Genghis Khan revered by him, which has been painted for him in the miniature of the manuscript in 1596. At that time of rapprochement with the envoys from Europe arriving to the Palace, the throne of Akbar has acquired the architectural features of the Pulpit of the Cathedral of Prato, near Florence (architect – Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, sculptor – Donatello). Inspired by the Italian design, the mason masters of India have transformed the Pulpit into a fantastic tree with branches likened to the serpents as the symbol of male energy and fertility: it was here, in Fatehpur Sikri, that the three long-awaited sons of the Emperor were born.
The XVI-XVII Centuries’ Popularization. Some Persian miniaturists came along with Humayun and taught their skills to Basawan in Lahore, who has illustrated the “Diwan Anwari” (Collection of Poems) according to the order of Akbar in 1588. Basawan’s miniature “Anwari in his summer house” (pic. 4) depicts the poet known under this pseudonym (born in 1126 in Abivard, Turkmenistan, and died in 1189 in Balkh, Afghanistan). Anwari in his youth served to Sultan Sanjar, but despised the court life and died as a secluded scholar: a Sufi poet, he was knowledgeable in geometry, astronomy, and astrology.
Under Jahangir, Akbar’s son, the number of Persian miniaturists at the court increased, and in 1595-1600, Agha Reza Herati illustrated “Jahangir’s Album”. Following the exquisite Persian canons, Agha Reza created a miniature “The riding Prince addresses a boy in the tree crown”. To the left is the riding Prince, a young man leaned to him from a square platform on the tree, to the right of the tree is a servant (18). The culture of the miniature, as well as the entire culture of the Timurid dynasty in India was borrowed by the caste of Rajputs that served them. Their miniature “The hunting Rajput hits from the tree a jumping tiger” (1625, Kota, Rajasthan, kept in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of the Harvard University) is a free interpretation of the Herati’s canon. Instead of the rider, a tiger is depicted, the young man on the tree has become a Rajput, and the servant is still there on the right. In a dark green of the night forest, the Rajput Prince on the orange-yellow platform turns left and hits a tiger by charging at him with his gun. On the other side of the tree a servant with a dagger runs to his rescue while behind him there is a white corpse of a cow already ripped up – a bait for the predator. This miniature transformed the Persian court canon into a succulent real-life sketch – a kind of a souvenir for the family use.
Shahjahan’s Tree-Thrones. The tree, westernized by Akbar, was revived in the throne of Jahangir’s son – Shahjahan. In 1623-43, in the center of the Rome St.Peter cathedral the architect G.L.Bernini was erecting the Canopy – the cover for a Deified Person. In 1628, Shahjahan ascended on the brand-new-for-this-occasion Peacock Throne (“Takhti Tovus”). Both Bernini Canopy and Shahjahani Peacock Throne are on square platform, have four columns, and covered with pyramid cut at its top. Shahjahan treated the columns like trees and, instead of Bernini’s angels, placed two peacocks above his throne. Since the time of Solomon and Jamshid, the birds were symbolizing happiness. On the wall behind the throne there is a decorative composition. On the white marble a tree with birds in its crown is encrusted. Above the tree the poet-musician Orpheus is depicted charming the animals around with his play on violin. He could not release his deceased wife Eurydice from the subterranean world, for he failed to meet the condition not to look back at her until they get up to the surface. At this very time, Shahjahan was building the Taj Mahal for his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal. As a sign of his deep personal grief, the Emperor took the image of Orpheus at the wall’s very top, so that, behind the bangla roof, it is not seen to public in the Hall. Grieving as Orpheus, Shahjahan put this European symbol too on the tree – the Temurids’ symbol of the changing Perfect Man.
The XVIII Century’s Popularization. People on the trees have made their way through the XVIII-th century likening themselves to the heavenly angels and the deified emperors. The ordinary vanity was urging them towards the insoni komil. The Indian miniature of that century, “A Feast on the Platform in the Tree Crown”, is being described as “the one imitating the composition common in the era of Akbar” (19). However, its original is even older – it is the Herati miniature of the XV century. The ladder now has no gates. The platform is of the square shape, not an octagonal, a symbol of ascension. The picture of an ordinary picnic is painted around the new “lord”. One of the servants by his side is playing a dutar, another one still carries a plate of meal on the ladder. Near the ladder, a cook with the tied mouth scoops the meal into another plate. By his side is a vigilant guard. In the background, behind the pond with the ducks, there are unsightly huts. The style of the second rate, is down-to-earth and realistic.
Ideal in Different Hands. The images of the rulers depicted as insoni komil were spreading all over by the Timurid culture and the advent of the new times. The traditional self-contemplative conception of the insoni komil has been mirrored in the miniatures and architecture. Still, there are the attempts to put some restrictions on it: “The painting of the image of the Universal Man (al-insan al-kamil), which is the closest concept in Islam to the God-man in other religions, is as much forbidden in Islam as that of the Divinity” (20). But what do all these peoples, who over the centuries climbed the trees, tell us today? – The values of the religions are intertwined. The goal of the formation of the ideal person – insoni komil – is important for any society. This tradition flourished luxuriously and thoroughly under the Timurides. Their peoples on the trees unfold an astonishing life of the ancient tradition and convincingly explain the architecture of their previously mysterious thrones. This tradition also proves that the ideas retain their heights in the powerful societies. With the weakening of the societies, the ideas are getting vulgarized and shrunk, and a decadent art in private and inept hands loses away the social significance of the dream.

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