Timur fights the army of Chata

A Leaf from a Zafarnama made for the Emperor Akbar
By the artist Khem Karan
Mughal India, circa 1598-1600
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper
Folio 28 x 20 cm; Painting 18.2 x 10.2 cm

This masterful folio leaf from the Zafarnama of Yazdi by the celebrated Indian miniature painter Khem Karan (flourished c. 1580–c. 1605) is a great achievement in the illustration of this important manuscript made for the Mughal emperor Akbar c. 1595-1600 by the renowned 15th-century Persian scholar Sharaf ad-Din Ali Yazdi, or Sharaf. Within it we see richly illustrated the full force of the panegyric, or praiseful, book of text and poetry also known as the ‘Book of Victory’.

In remarkable chromatic splendour we observe a crowded battle scene known as the ‘battle of Lai’, which took place on 1 Ramadan 766 (1365) between the armies of Timur and Ilyas Khwaja Khan of the Chata (i.e., Moghulistan or the Eastern Chagatai Khanate). The army of Timur was initially successful and put the enemy in pursuit, as depicted in this painting; subsequently, however, the enemy rallied and succeeded in repelling Timur’s army, killing more than ten thousand men.

In the upper register, Timur stands out as the central character as he rises above the crowd and the rocky promontory on his steed and is followed by his close personal retinue of servants and guards. He is dressed in the battle gear of his men, showing allegiance, and identifying him as leader and also soldier. Below the rocky escarpment his army moves dynamically from right to left as they gain on the enemy troops and crushing the opposing forces on the left side of the scene.

The striking geometry of the composition is based on diagonals, a feature typical of Mughal painting under Akbar and particularly the dynastic histories of the 1580s and 90s. Landscape features, such as the overlaid mountains and the sweeping flow of sky and birds at the top of the leaf, create the impression of the recession of space; they also give the composition a sense of dynamism, inviting the viewer to follow its rhythmic design as the narrative unfolds and completes the spatial context of the scene.

According to Philippa Vaughan, Khem Karan was 13th of the 17 artists listed in the Āyin-i Akbarī, a contemporary account of the administration of the Mughal emperor Akbar (reg 1556–1605) as it was c.1590. As he was established by the 1580s, probably having worked on the Hamzanāma (‘Tales of Hamza’; c.1567–82; alternatively dated 1562–77), his fine composition in the Dārābnāma (‘Story of Darab’; c.1580–85) qualified him to work in several capacities on the Razmnāma (‘Book of wars’; 1582–6): as sole artist (fols 27, 53 and 107), as designer (fol. 28) and as colourist (fols 78 and 165).

As perhaps he was a careful and methodical worker, in the other manuscripts produced by teams of artists his few illustrations were sole compositions: Tīmūrnāma (1584); Akbarnāma (‘History of Akbar’; c.1590); Jāmi‛ al-tavārīkh (‘Compendium of histories’, known as the Chinghiznāma; 1596); Bāburnāma (‘History of Babur’; 1598). In literary works, which offered greater scope for artistic expression, his style was conservative: in Anvari’s Dīvān (collected poems; 1588) and Nizami’s Khamsa (‘Five poems’; 1595). His last work is in the later Akbarnāma (begun c.1597; alternatively dated 1602–5) and Jami’s Nafaḥāt al-uns (‘Fragrant breezes of fellowship’; 1605). [1]

Works by this important Mughal artist are held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [Acc. No. 25.68.4]; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London [Acc. No. IS.2:15-1896], and the Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA, [Acc. No. 1960.117.243].


In the lower margin, in red nasta‘liq, in Persian. On the right-hand side:
م ریما ندومن ھبراح رکشل اب نارق بحاص ھتچ
‘Amir Sahib Qiran fights the army of Chata’

On the left-hand side:
نرکمیھک لمع
‘Work of Khemkaran’

Private Collection, UK, 1960s.


[1] Philippa Vaughan, Khem Karan, Grove Art Online, 23 February 2011

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