The special presentation in the Book Art Cabinet of the Pergamon Museum sheds light on asceticism in the various religions on the Indian subcontinent from the 16th to the 18th century. The cultural and religious diversity of the ascetics, Sufis and yoginis is made vivid by means of selected examples from the album pages of Indian miniature painting.
Image above: Mihr Chand, A Gathering of Ascetics and Musicians under a Tree, India, c. 1765-1773, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Islamische Kunst / Johannes Kramer
The special presentation shows the diverse cultural practices of the ascetics and their significance and position of power within the Indian subcontinent. It also illustrates how closely these rites and practices are interwoven beyond any religion and how they have mutually enriched and influenced each other through exchange.
From the 16th century onwards, depictions of ascetic women were very popular at the courts of the Mughal emperors and Deccan sultans of the Indian subcontinent. The exhibition shows images in illuminated manuscripts and albums that testify to a rich mystical tradition. They expand the general understanding of the various ascetic sects of sannyasins, yogis, Sufis and fakirs that shaped the socio-cultural landscape of the Indian subcontinent. The diverse religious and ethnic affiliations within the Indian empire made it necessary for Muslim rulers to secure the patronage of these groupings. Through the favour of the ascetics, who were revered by the major faiths and ethnic groups, the emperors and sultans gained religious legitimacy.
Whether in Islam or Hinudism, ascetic women were said to be able to attain a multitude of supernatural powers through their spiritual practices and to transcend the boundary between the earthly and the spiritual. Secular rulers legitimised their spiritual authority through close relationships with holy men and women and at the same time profited from their prestige and power. Conversely, ascetic women often intervened in worldly and political affairs.
Apart from depictions embodying their spiritual lives, ascetics form the key figures in illustrated love stories that show them as ideal lovers. Rulers who wanted to embrace the spiritual charisma of these ascetics had themselves depicted interacting with them or sometimes staged themselves as royal ascetics. Conversely, ascetics also staged themselves as sublime rulers. Ascetics also staged themselves as exalted rulers, which illustrates their high status within the social order.
Portraits of yogini (female embodiment of yogic power) and ascetics became popular in the 18th century. In the depictions, ascetic women transcend the boundaries between human and superhuman strength or worldly and spiritual love. Yoginis can be depicted as goddesses or as women who attain supernatural powers but retain their human form. In addition, there are also depictions of princesses dressed as yoginis, expressing the ideal of self-sacrifice for love. In images, yoginis are depicted as having equal power and influence with men in their spiritual pursuits.
The exhibition is curated by Deniz Erduman-Çalış, Museum of Islamic Art, and Parul Singh, Art History Institute Florence.