Emperor Jahangir’s chief huntsman, Iman Wirdi, looked in astonishment at the safed teetar (grey partridge) he held in his hand. He knew that the male partridge had pointed spurs on its legs and the female did not have any. But the bird he held had one spur. Whether it was male or female was, therefore, difficult to say. “An opportunity,” he thought happily, “to test the Emperor’s knowledge about birds. He thinks he is an expert-let’s see.”
The Emperor was relaxing under a shady tree after a futile hunt in the hot afternoon. When Wirdi approached him and bowed, he scowled. In as pleasing a tone as he could muster, Wirdi said, “My Lord, excuse me for my impertinence. What is the sex of this bird, My Lord?” As the Emperor began to examine the bird, all the hunters gathered around him. Everyone was eager to know how the Emperor would fare.
“It’s a female,” said the Emperor confidently, passing the cackling bird back to Wirdi. When the bird was killed and its stomach cut open to confirm this, some eggs were found-proof that the bird was female. Everyone, included the embarrassed Wirdi, applauded. But how had the Emperor guessed right?
The Emperor laughed. Sipping wine from his cup, he explained, “I deduced that it was female from its beak. The end of the beak is very small.” Jahangir was not only a bird watcher, or ornithologist as he would be called now, but also a keen observer of animals and plants. His observations are recorded in his Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri (Memoirs of Jahangir).
Jahangir was born on August 30, 1569, to Akbar, the Moghul Emperor, and his Hindu wife, the daughter of Raja Bhar Mal of Amber. He was crowned on October 24,1605. In the 22 years he was Emperor, till his death on October 28, 1627, he had many battles to fight and many rebellions to suppress. But he still found time for his hobby as a naturalist. The care and accuracy with which Jahangir described various characteristics of animals and birds, their geographical distribution and behaviour, would have done credit to a whole time naturalist. The internationally renowned Indian ornithologist, Salim Ali, says, “His memoirs are a veritable gazetteer of natural history of the India of his day.”
Jahangir’s detailed descriptions of birds such as the polecat and monkey are notable. He made a correct estimate of the gestation period of elephants and gave details of the pairing of sarus cranes. These are his original contributions to natural science. Even until the mid-nineteenth century zoologists, unaware of his work, did not know the gestation period of elephants. Jahangir wrote that the gestation period was 18 to 19 months.
The great advantage he had was that he had a small zoo. But he had to spend hours, even nights and days, for a single observation. For the first time in the history of ornithology, he noted how sarus cranes mate, brood over their eggs in turn, and how chicks are hatched and taken care of. He also observed one human quality in this bird: the parents love not only their eggs and chicks but also each other.
Jahangir loved gardens, but his interest in botany and horticulture was superficial. His observations were mostly confined to how a lotus traps a hornet or how saffron sprouts from the soil.
He had other scientific interests. For instance, he once conducted an experiment to show that the air of Mahmudabad (Gujarat) was healthier than that of Ahmedabad. He also used to record solar and lunar eclipses. When a comet made its appearance, he recorded the growth and decay of its tail. He was also responsible for the cultivation of high altitude trees such as cypress, juniper, pine and Javanese sandals on the plains.
The Emperor had several famous painters in his court. Whenever he came across a rare animal, bird or plant, he used to summon an artist and ask him to draw it. The painter who excelled in this art was Ustad Mansur, given the title of Nadiru’l-Asr. For modern naturalists Jahangir’s collection of paintings is a live catalogue. It provides a strikingly accurate description of the natural history of the day. Unfortunately, most of the paintings did not remain in the land. With the disintegration of the Moghul empire, foreign adventurers looted this treasure. Most of the portraits thus lost are those flowers, plants and trees.
In 1958 there was sensation in the world of ornithology when a Russian researcher, A. Ivanov, discovered a portrait of the dodo, a large, non-flying pigeon-like bird which had become extinct about three centuries ago, in a collection of paintings at the Institute of Orientalists of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. There was nothing to identify the painter, but the style was without doubt of Ustad Mansur, the court painter of Jahangir. Now there is other evidence to show that it was the portrait of a Mauritius dodo which a merchant had presented to the Emperor around 1624. So, in the world of ornithology, Jahangir and the dodo made a dramatic reappearance nearby three centuries after they had died.