Part 1

The Indian Empires


Part 1 The Indian Empires


The Moghul Empire

Part 2  Modern India

Invaders from the West

The British

The Republic


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Modern rendering of Vishnu, showing the symbols of Indian socio-political elements


The oldest set of symbols denoting the sociopolitical structure of Indian societies originates from Hinduism. These symbols are concentrated in the images of Vishnu, the keeper of the universe, he himself a part of the divine triumvirate, together with Brahma the creator and Shiva the destroyer.

Vishnu is usually depicted with four arms, a crown and a halo. In his upper right hand he holds a wheel of law (cakra), in his upper left hand a lotus (padma), in his lower right hand a club (gada) and in his lower left hand a conch (shanka).

Sometimes the halo is not behind or around his head but is encircling him.

In the Vishnu configuration we detect the symbols for the empire (the halo or sun), for the ruler (the image of Vishnu) and the state (the wheel of law).

The three ranges of authority are symbolized by the conch for the religious authority, the lotus for the administrative authority, and the club for the armed authority.




The Indian symbols find their parallels in other cultures and can be compared for example with the sun, the crescent and the image in Western culture, and with the square cross, the latin cross and the christogram in early Christian culture. In no other culture however, the different elements are united in a configuration like the Vishnu configuration be it alone because in no other culture a divine being can be depicted with more than four limbs.


Nevertheless we may compare this Vishnu configuration with the imperial images in the West and in China in which the ruler usually is depicted carrying the symbols of his power in his hands, on his clothes or on his head.


Statue of a king, probably of the

kingdom of Gaudi, 7th c.


Statue of a king, probably one of the last kings of the Pala dynasty (750-1120)


The symbols of authority were also displayed by the Indian rulers. Examples can be found in ancient statues in which the ruler is depicted standing in his seven-horse drawn chariot, crowned and with lotus’s in his hands. In this way he announces himself as a high ranked administrator, comparable with the Roman prefect (who was entitled to a quadriga).

As an example we show here the statue of a king of 7th century Bengal, probably a king of Gauda. [1] A royal statue from the same region but dated in the 12th century shows that little had changed over fivehundred years.

A set of royal insignia are on these pages of a copy of the 12th century Sangrahani Sutra manuscript. [2]



The first page shows 8 of the 14 jewels of a Chakravartin – 1: disc, 2: umbrella, 3: staff, 4: throne, 5: sword, 6: cowrie, 7: jewel, 8: family priest.

The symbols are the symbol of the empire (discus) and three symbols of rank (umbrella, staff, throne). Three other are symbols of the armed- the religious- and the administrative authority. [3]



The second page shows the five jewels of Vasudeva and four vehicles. The jewels are 1: sword, 2: jewel, 3: staff, 4: garlands, 5: conch. [4]

Two of these symbols can be determined as symbols of armed authority and religious authority. The “jewel” may be a picture of a lotus. Staff and garland may be symbols of rank.


Throughout Indian history these symbolic elements of human organization have been used. Countless are the pictures of rulers sitting on thrones, their faces surrounded with halo’s, umbrellas above their heads and screens carried before or behind them.


As for heraldry in the stricter sense, that is to say the symbolism of the armed forces, there is no essential difference between Indian heraldry and heraldry in other cultures. Like almost everywere else the armed forces used banners, pennons and standards to be able to locate armed units in battle and uniforms to be able to make a distinction between friend and enemy. Colours and symbols were borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist repertories. Early reports of the use of heraldry are in the Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata where the warring princes and their commanders are distinguishable by their coloured banners decorated with precious stones, celestial bodies, fabulous beasts and gods.[5] Chandragupta II of the Gupta Empire (376-415) is depicted on his coins with a standard with a Garuda, the riding-animal of Vishnu. [6]  A difference with mediaeval western armies is that the martial symbols were not displayed on shields. As a result no complicated systems of cadency were developed to be able to make a difference between the head of the family and his offspring in battle, let alone that such systems were developed further after the use of shields in battle had become almost obsolete. As such, when the Western powers invaded India at the end of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries, Indian armies were hardly different from western armies from the point of view of heraldry.


The Moghul Empire


After the Moghul conquest some new elements were introduced and some styles changed. In particular islamic persian influences are visible.


The configuration of sociopolitical symbols underwent a slight modification in that the crescent as a symbol of state was introduced. This can be seen in this portrait of Janhangir receiving a mullah.


Jahangir receiving a mullah.  By Bitsjitr, 1620 ca.


In this picture the Mughal configuration of the empire, the state and the ruler is depicted, the empire symbolized by a sun radiant, the state by a crescent and the ruler by his image. The sun-and-crescent has its origins in ancient Mesopotamia and was the imperial state emblem in the time of the Seleucid Empire (312-64 BC). In the Ottoman Empire the sun-and-crescent is on the Imperial Banner as early as the 16th century.


The symbol of the Empire


As before, the symbol of the Empire was a sun. The Indian sun is of variable design. The oldest form, from the first years of the Mughal Empire shows a sun radiant, the rays thin and long.  This form is for example on the imperial robes of Humayun  (1530-’40, 1555-’56).




Humayun and his son Akbar paying homage to the sun.

Detail from a Hamzeh-nama, 1567 ca (Mus. f. Angewandte Kunst, Wien)

The miniature illustrates a happening that occured in about 1556, the year when Humayun died. Akbar was of the age of 13 then. His facxe is to compare with the face of the warrior on the illustration below.




Portrait of Akbar (1556-1605), showing the sun-emblems on his breast and knees.

Detail from an Akbar-nama, 1590 ca. (Victoria and Albert Museum, 2.1896.I.S.65.117.)


After the restoration of Humayun and from the time of Akbar (1556-1605)  the sun is depicted as a chrysantemum-like multi-petalled device, strongly reminding us of the sun of the 9th - 6th century BC. Empire of Urartu on the one hand, and of the device of the Emperor of Japan on the other hand.  More directly this design of the sun continues the Il-Khanid and Timurid tradition. [7]


In later versions the sun-emblem is sometimes it is surrounded by a halo of short rays, and sometimes the sun is what we can call ‘radiant’. Sometimes it is just a golden disc. Generally the sun is depicted as a halo around the head of the ruler. Pictures of the sun as a symbol on itself are rare. Sometimes it is depicted on the baldachin of the throne.


The symbols of the Emperor


Jahangir (1605-’27) on a golden coin


The emperor is symbolized by his image. He has always a nimbus around his head and is dressed in precious clothes. The combination of the sun and the image means: The ruler of the Empire. This configuration was imitated by other Indian Princes claiming sovereignty. In particular it can be found in Mewar and in Mysore.


In a broader context  the sun-and-image can be compared with the imperial arms of the German empire which consisted of the symbol of the empire (the black two-headed eagle on a golden field), charged with the personal blazon of the Emperor.


The Imperial Device


The emperors’personal emblem is his name and titles written in arabic. This is written within a cartouche and is in a tradition going back to ancient Egyptian times.

The Imperial Name can be found on Indian coinage but also on the frontpages of manuscripts dedicated to the Emperor.




Imperial name of Shah Jahan, 1645 [8]



Imperial name of Aurangzeb [9]


Sometimes an extended form of the Imperial Name is used which consists of the Imperial name, surrounded by the names of nine of his predecessors. This extended Imperial name can be found on imperial seals, themselves the emblems of administrative authority.


Imperial seal of Jahangir [10]


Imperial seal of Shah Jahan [11]

Imperial seal, 1806 [12]


The Lion and the Sun


For a short time a lion and a sun appears in connexion with the ruler of the Moghul Empire. It was printed on a series of coins minted by Jahangir in the years 1020-’28 H (1611-’17 AD).

In litterature this lion was interpreted in different ways and has caused much confusion. It was, for example, thought that the lion referred to the emperors’ birthday. [13] There can be no doubt that the lion and the sun is a military device and an example of Indian heraldry in the proper sense of the word.

We must remark that the lion in almost every culture has been a symbol of military rank and as such is not a personal but a classificatory emblem. In Chinese military hierarchy the lion is the symbol of a military officer of the second rank, and one grade lower than the qilin or unicorn.

Jahangir’s lion-and-sun coin, 1611-‘17


The beasts of the Chinese military hierarchy are always depicted together with a red sun, the symbol of the Chinese Empire.

We know that in early western military hierarchy the lion was a symbol of an officer of the third rank and below the eagle and the griffin (or bull).

It seems likely that within the Il-Khanid empire not the Western but the Chinese military symbols of rank were adopted. [14] This we may conclude from 13th century wall tiles from Keshan, today in the Louvre Museum. These are decorated with Chinese styled dragons and phoenixes but also with  leopards and bears, beasts occupying the third and the fifth ranks in Chinese military hierarchy. In this context we may mention also the lion-and-sun of the Persian Safavid rulers and their successors, and the tiger and the sun on the Shir Dar Madrasah in Samarkand, built between 1619 and 1635. Persia, the Delhi Sultanate and  Samarkand all have been part of the Tamerlane Empire (1370-1405).


Thomas Roe’s Standard of Jahangir

Accepting this idea, it would explain why Zāhir ud-Dīn Muhammad (*1483-†1530), the founder of the Mughal Empire, was nicknamed Babur, meaning ‘tiger’ or ‘leopard’, beasts occupying the fourth and third rank. It would demonstrate that he was considered a military leader of these ranks.

The lion and the sun on Jahangir’s coins as a consequence, mean that he ranked himself as a military leader of the second rank, and, because a counterpart of the Chinese first rank was missing in his Empire, in fact of the highest military rank in Hindustan.

Also, we must be aware that a lion was the symbol of an amir-al-mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful) a title borne by Akbar but not by his successors. [15]

The lion and the sun in connection with Jahangir was also observed by Thomas Roe who visited the Mughal Court 1615-’19. [16] From him originates a picture of the standard of Jahangir, showing a lion couchant before a sun radiant. The same lion couchant is depicted on the seal  in the right upper corner of a map of Hindustan. [17]

About 1670 this standard was depicted in a collection of flags, the field yellow, the seal red with a blue bordure, the lion gold. [18]


The symbol of State


As a symbol of state we meet the moon, like in many other cultures. The Indian moon is always depicted as a full moon and as a white or silver disc. It has its counterpart in China where the moon is used and depicted in the same way.  The first Mughal emperors used the crescent as a symbol of State, thereby following the Hellenistic tradition.

The full moon can be found in connection with the Mughal governors or nawabs. It was displayed on a black circular screen borne behind the ruler. Sometimes it has a corona or is surrounded by stars. The full moon continues a Hindu tradition and was used by Hindu rulers. It was also used by the nizam of Hyderabad and the maharaja of Benares. The combination of the rulers’ portrait and the full moon means: state official”.



Detail of Procession of Maharao Ram Singh II of Kota.

Kota, ca. 1850. Victoria & Albert Museum.

Behind the maharao a black screen with full moon with a golden corona. The green halo around the head of the prince is to be noted.

The Imperial Achievement



As a symbol of the Imperial government, alias the achievement of state, we meet a sun supported by two simurgs which are symbols of royalty. It is suggested by a 17th century miniature that this achievement was already in use by Babur (1526-’30). [19]

The achievement would reflect the obsession of Babur with Samarkand which he was unable to conquer all of his life, as the by simurgs supported sun may have been the emblem of  the Transoxiana government in the time of Tamerlane (1370-1405), and in fact may be of Il-Khanid origin. The achievement has to be compared with the sun-and-simurgs achievement on the Nadir Divan-Begi Madrasah in Bukhara, built 1622-’23. [20] 

Be it as it is, we may be sure that the achievement was used by Shah Jahan and his successors.



On the canopy of the throne of Shah Jahan (1628-‘58).

Detail from a miniature in a Sjah-Jahan nama, ca. 1650, fol. 50v. (Royal Library of Windsor)



On the canopy of the throne of  Aurangzeb (1658-1707)

On a miniature showing Aurangzeb in audience.


On a portrait of Muhammad Shah II (1719-’48)  in conference.

(Private Collection)


The simurg is a manifestation of Allah on the one hand. On the other hand there is the legend of the Birds’Assembly which tells us that an assembly of thirty birds was looking for their king Simurg until  they discovered they were Simurg themselves, si-murg meaning “thirty birds”.

The simurg is depicted as a multicoloured bird of about the same design as the chinese feng or phoenix. It came from China with a detour by Persia to India.

As such the achievement would mean: The Government of the Empire by the Grace of God and the People.


The Crown



11-12th c. Indian ruler wearing a crown


16th century  Delhi sultan wearing a crown


Akbar (1556-1605) wearing a crown [21]


17th century Indian crown


18th century Indian crown


Bahadur Shah II wearing a tiara


Like their predecessors the Indian rulers of the Delhi Sultanate wore crowns as a symbol of their administrative authority and rank. A contemporary portrait of such a ruler is from the 16th century [2]. It is for sure that royal crowns were part of the royal regalia in Persia and the Delhi Sultanate was culturally influenced by Persia and that may be the reason why the crown depicted is of Persian fashion.

The 16th century Indian crown consisted of a golden diadem mounted with leaves, on the central leaf a jewel of some white feathers. The crown was closed with a blue cap, surmounted by a golden spire. A crown of a different model was worn by Babur and passed to Humayun and Akbar. Akbar is depicted when he passes it to his successor Jahangir. [22] In the reign of the latter the crown is depicted together with a green sphere [4].

Usually however, the crown is not worn on the portraits of the Mughal emperors and they are depicted with a turban instead.

When the imperial palace was pillaged after the Indian mutiny of 1858, a crown of this fashion was found. [5] [23]

Bahadur Shah II himself is depicted with a crown inspired by the tiara of Fath Ali Shah of Persia. [6][24]

In the time of the Raj an Indian Imperial crown was made of European design. This crown is still in the Tower of London. [25]

Indian Imperial crown, 1911




Part 2  Modern India


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© Hubert de Vries 2009-12-18

[1] ) Asutosh Museum of Indian Art, Calcutta.  It would be nice if  this was a statue of  Shashanka, the first important king of ancient Bengal. It is generally believed that he ruled approximately between 600 and 625 AD. Indeed this king had been a vassal of the Gupta Empire.

[2] ) Sangrahani Sutra manuscript. Rajasthan, 18th century Ink and watercolour on paper. Victoria and Albert Museum. Fol’s IS 35:441971, IS 35:451971. The Sangrahani Sutra is an illustrated cosmological text written in Sanskrit in the 12th century

[3] ) The ancient Indian conception of the world ruler, derived from the Sanskrit c̣akra, “wheel,” and vartin, “one who turns.” Thus, a chakravartin may be understood as a ruler “whose chariot wheels roll everywhere,” or “whose movements are unobstructed.” This may be the title of the emperor.

[4] ) The meaning of this Vasudeva is unclear but may just be “ruler”.

[5] ) These epics are dated between the 5th c. BC and the 1st c. AD. Sauer, W.: Fahnen und Wappen im Mahabharata. In: Der Deutsche Herold. XXIV Jahrg. pp. 70-72. The same: Indisches noch einmal. In: Der Deutsche Herold. XXIV Jahrg. pp. 101-102.

[6] ) Krom, N.J. : De Eerste Javaansche Hindoe-munt. In: Bijdragen tot de Taal Land en Volkenkunde. 1932 pp. 121-122.

[7] )  As can be seen on a miniature called “Isfandyar fights with the wolves”, dated Tabriz, 1370ca. Topkapi Museum Hazine 2153, fol 73b.

[8] ) Tughra of Shah Jahan: His Majesty, Shihabuddin Muhammad Shahjahan, the King, Warrior of the Faith, may God perpetuate his kingdom and sovereignty. The field decorated with simurgs and birds..(New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N° 55.121.10 Kevorkian Album, fol 39 r°.)

[9] ) Tughra of Aurangzib: Ab’uz-Zafar Muhyiddin ‘Alamgir Padshah sana 1 (the first year of his reign, 1658). The field decorated with simurgs and birds. (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, N° 55.121.10 Kevorkian Album, fol 40r°.)

[10] ) Foster, W.: The Embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the Court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619, as narrated in his Journal and Correspondence. Edited from contemporary records. Hakluyt-Society 2nd Series II. London 1899. Also:.

[11] ) Rouffaer, G.P.: De Hindostansche Oorsprong van het “Negenvoudig” Sultans-zegel van Atjeh. In: Bijdragen tot de Taal- Land- en Volkenkunde van Neder­landsch Indië. Dl. LIX, 1906 afl. 3 & 4. Pl. 1 .

[12] ) Detail of College of Arms 1806 enrolment of patent from the Emperor of Hindustan, creating Major General Vere Warner Hussey a Noble or Omrah of the Mogul Empire (Coll. Arms, I 37, p. 233)

[13] ) Lane Poole, Stanley: Coins of the Moghul Emperors of Hindustan. London, 1892. P. lxxx.

[14] ) This was also true for the empire of  Chagatai Khan.  Marco Polo  writes that a  “commander of 100.000” “whenever he goes riding he must carry an umbrella over his head in token of his exalted rank” and has a lion and a sun & moon as his emblem  (Polo, Marco: The Travels. Penguin classics, 1967. p. 121).

[15] ) The extended title of Akbar was: Al-Sultan al-'Azam wal Khaqan al-Mukarram, Imam-i-'Adil, Sultan ul-Islam Kaffatt ul-Anam, Amir ul-Mu'minin, Khalifat ul-Muta'ali Abu'l-Fath Jalal ud-din Muhammad Akbar I Sahib-i-Zaman, Padshah Ghazi Zillu'llah. See: Royal Ark.

[16] ) Foster, W.: op.cit.

[17] ) Indolstani Imperii Totius Asiæ ditissimi descriptio : ex indagatione Ilust : Dom : Tho : Roe Equitis Aurati in Regia Mogollanica Legatum  agentis Illustrata : Anno Sal : 1619 Vera quæ visa : quæ non veriora. British Museum K 115 (22)

[18]) Flags of the world : 1669-1670 : a seventeenth century manuscript / with commentary and historical annotations by Kl. Sierksma. Amsterdam 1966. Pp 275-276

[19] ) Timur handing the imperial crown to Babur. Gouache and gold on paper. By Govardhan. Mughal ca 1630 IM 8-1925. Made for the royal album of Shah Jahan and inscribed with the artist in the emperor’s hand, this painting is one side of a double composition illustrating the Mughal line of descent from the Mongol ruler Timur. As the receiver of the crown looks like Humayun, the painting of the achievement on the canopy may also be correct.

[20] ) The simultaneous appearance of the sun-and-simurgs achievement may not be fortuiteous as on the façade of the Shir Dar Madrasah in Samarkand, built between 1619 and 1635, = appeared tiger-and-sun symbols.

[21] ) Detail from: St. Francis Xavier received by the Daimyo of Yamaguchi. Manuel Henriques, S.J. Oil on canvas. 153 x 213 cm. Portuguese school. Coimbra, 17th century (1st quarter) Coimbra, Sé Nova.  33. This picture shows the reception of a Portuguese priest by Akbar. Illustration from the catalogue of  the “Via Orientalis” exposition, 1993. Pp. 190-191.

[22] ) In the “Kevorkian Album” Metropolitan Mus. of Art. New York n° 55.121.10.

[23] ) Today in H.M. Queen Elizabeth II s’ collection , Windsor. See also: Brus, René: Kronen van de Wereld. Amsterdam, 1992

[24] ) Emperor Bahadur Shah II. The Knellington Coll. Cambridge, Mass.

[25] ) Made for the coronation of King George V in 1911 for  £ 60 000. Today in the Tower  of Londen until one of both parts of the colony leaves the Commonwealth.