The Tribune - Spectrum



Sunday, November 5, 2000
'Art and Soul

Celestial mappings
By B.N Goswamy

THIS note is about a horoscope that, apart from being a horoscope, leads one to a truly exquisite work of art. For that work is incorporated within it.

One knows of course, that there are horoscopes and horoscopes: not in respect of their contents alone — that, naturally — but of their format and appearance. One sees them on palm-leaf and paper and copper-plate; finds them drawn up in the form of scrolls, of tablets strung together, of codex-form volumes; filled only with words, embellished with geometrical drawings and tables, or richly illuminated and illustrated. The horoscope that I speak of is of the last kind. Related to the life of a Timurid prince, Iskandar Sultan, it is in the form of an illuminated and illustrated volume, a magnificent document going back to the 15th century.

The volume has a history that is almost as absorbing as that of the prince to whom it relates. For centuries together after it was composed and embellished, the document – it is a Morocco-bound codex consisting of 86 folios written in Persian – seems to have been lost, only to surface in about 1794, and to be picked up, "as a curiosity", by one John H. Harrington who started his career as a clerk in the English East India Company but rose to become a member of its Supreme Council. Harrington must have known something about what he had acquired, for he knew Persian well. But there are no notes on the document by him and, barring a eulogy in verse in his own honour, the blank pages appended to the volume contain no information of use. Silence, and obscurity, take the document over once again for another hundred years or so, then, in 1923, it appeared at an auction at Sotheby’s, and was bought by Sir Henry Wellcome, who added it to his great collection of books and manuscripts now housed in the Wellcome Library in London. Six pounds and fifteen shillings was all that was then paid for this treasure.

Discussing art — threadbare
October 29, 2000
Feeding the Imperial Image
October 8, 2000
Goya: Painter of the absurd
September 24, 2000

Yet another Mughal Ramayana
September 10, 2000

Children: Seen, but not heard
September 3, 2000
Things that reach across time
August 13, 2000
Several tombs and a garden
July 30, 2000
Measuring time in Japan
July 16, 2000
About the making of a throne
July 2, 2000
Blending the old with the new
June 18, 2000
Picasso in Lucerne
June 11, 2000
Commerce in craft
May 28, 2000
The Pharaoh and the sun
May 14, 2000

Iskandar Sultan, the prince whose horoscope one is speaking of, lived, like othersIskandar Sultan’s horoscope: Shiraz, Iran, 1411 of his age, in tumultuous times. Born to one of the redoubtable Timur’s sons in 1384, and nursed in the school of ambition and aggrandisement, Iskandar showed early signs of enterprise, leading campaigns from the age of sixteen onwards, and establishing control over small territories. His life story reads as if he spent half his years in the stirrup: Joining his grandfather in a major raid here, setting out to carve out a principality on his own there. Predictably, he ran into trouble with his equally ambitious kinsmen, and was even taken prisoner, only to be bailed out, at least on one occasion, by his all-powerful grandfather. Hamadan, Yazd, Khurasan, Isfahan, Shiraz — names redolent of history, evocative of strife and power — come up again and again. There is an account of the rule that he established over the central and southwestern region of Iran, and also of his being taken prisoner once again by a kinsman who suspected him of fomenting trouble in his territories. He was put in chains, escaped, but was captured again by his own half-brother, Rustam. When he died in 1415, he was close to 31 years of age.

Interestingly, the horoscope was not cast soon after Iskandar Sultan’s birth, but close to his 27th birthday predictions for the next 11 years being made in it. Why that moment was chosen is not clear: It could have been an especially difficult time for the prince who might then have liked to know from the stars what lay ahead of him; or it might have been his encounter with an astrologer/astronomer of renown, the man whose name appears at the end of the volume: Mohammed bin Yahya bin al-Assad bin Mohammed, also known by the pen-name or laqab of Imad-al Munajjam al-Kashi, meaning that this knower of stars came from Kashan. Whatever the case, the text of the horoscope is long and complex, ranging from recording the place and date of the prince’s birth and the position of the stars at that moment, to elaborate but general astrological predictions, taking into account the positions of the twelve houses. The third and final section of the book contains prophesies about Iskandar Sultan’s own life, from the 28th to the 40th year, the author not going beyond the 40th year for, in that year, a rare conjunction of stars was to take place and predictions past that were to depend upon how things transpired during that momentous event.

But to get back to the document. The volume is written in clean, although not especially distinguished, naskh characters, and the illumination — rich decorative work in gold and blue and green and red — on some pages is finely done.

But what takes one’s breath away is the illuminated and illustrated double-page that records the position of the stars and the planets at the time of Iskandar Sultan’s birth. Seeing the page the sensation that one gets is of looking up suddenly at the sun in all its dazzling glory. The shamsa-like centre of the page apart, with rays and circles issuing forth from it, gold and blue arabesques — all tendrils and rosettes and delicate curlicues — fill every inch of the space, inviting the eye to enter and lose itself in their intricacies. At the two sides, within vertical panels, but also encased within arabesques, are superbly calligraphed verses, addressing the Sultan, speaking of the auspiciousness of the moment of his birth, and telling him of how the planets themselves are all eager to serve him and be at his command. While within the small circles, close to the centre, are crisply rendered representations of the twelve signs of the zodiac, and the planets are envisioned in their proper places in the diagram: Venus seen as a beautiful lute-playing woman, Mars with sword held aloft, Saturn rendered of dark skin, Jupiter holding in his hands an astrolabe, and so on. But not for a moment is the eye of the viewer allowed to rest, for the imagery, the illumination, keeps becoming fuller and fuller, more and more complex. The text fitted into the diagram is obviously meaningful, but it merges seamlessly with the meticulously worked out design of the page. And, at the four corners, beyond the outer circle, more celestial figures are introduced, rich in symbolism, delicate in execution. Here two divine, winged creatures hover in the air, holding in their extended hands golden crowns; another two, at the lower end, hold up golden platters, as if ready, like the planets, to serve the prince, even as their dresses sweep the air and ribbon-like waistbands flutter about flamboyantly around them. It is all rich beyond compare.

Other oracles

The page from Iskandar Sultan’s horoscope appears on the cover of the book that also served as a catalogue of the superbly mounted exhibition on oracles that the Rietberg Museum put together in Zurich earlier this year. That book is filled with other riches, but of those, hopefully, another time ….