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Paintings > Persian > Zahhak Punished: A Folio from the Shah-Nama
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Zahhak Punished: A Folio from the Shah-Nama

Zahhak Punished: A Folio from the Shah-Nama

Zahhak Punished: A Folio from the Shah-Nama

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5.6 inches X 8.5 inches
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Zahhak Punished: A Folio from the Shah-Nama

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The painting, truly a miniature with a canvas in inches and the theme narrating a tale of long years seeking to portray a world which evil invades but ultimately the good prevails – a conflict of good and evil, illustrates the Zahhak-related episode from the Shah-nama. The folio, with every millimeter of its space occupied by this form or that, each independent and distinct and yet composed into an integral whole, is a miracle that an artist’s brush rarely performs. A Persian classic, dated 1010 A.D., by Qasim Hasan Mansur, better known as Firdausi, his title that Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni had conferred on him after he heard a few of his verses, Shah-nama is an epic that narrates the annals – virtues and vices, and exploits and failures of fifty illustrious kings – Shahs, of Iran, of the period preceding Firdausi.

Shah-nama, a timeless classic of which 2010 is the millennium year being celebrated world-over, has been illustrated in almost all major art traditions and art styles of the world. Stories of individual kings apart, Shah-nama is also the book of Persia, its lifestyle, culture, land and its unique temperament and topography, and, hence, whoever the artist illustrating it, or whichever his country, in a folio of Shah-nama the Persian character is the strongest element to emerge. This painting, which reproduces to a hair-width exactness an earlier – a sixteenth century, Shah-nama folio attributable to the known artist Sultan Muhammad, follows characteristically this Shah-nama tradition. Perhaps, the timeless character of the epic so occupies the illustrator’s mind that bewitched by it, it never thinks of going beyond to what the text binds it.

The episode, illustrated in the folio, relates to Zahhak, one of the villainous men in Shah-nama, who promoted evil for their personal ambitions and gains. The ambitious power-greedy young Zahhak cherished the desire to become the king by removing – even by killing his father. Ahriman, the evil incarnate, after he came to know of the ambition that Zahhak cherished in his mind, in an attempt to exploit him met him and with the promise that he would kill his father and make him the king in his father’s place tempted him to indulge into evil. In due course, Ahriman killed the father of Zahhak and made him the king. As stipulated between them, there grew from the shoulders of Zahhak a pair of hungry snakes. Massive as it was, the appetite of the vipers could be appeased only by a regular supply of human brains.

Apart that Zahhak was bound to the evil by the words that he had given to Ahriman, of which he could not discharge himself even after he became the king, he was cruel and vicious also by nature. In addition, the two hungry snakes were a threat to him. For appeasing the snakes’ appetite Zahhak was required to arrange for each at least a human brain a day. With no other option left, he began sacrificing two young men everyday for serving their brains to the snakes. Unhappy as they were, people’s ire against Zahhak, a monster by his deeds, was mounting everyday and it finally exploded into a revolt which a young man Faridan led. Dethroned and with all his powers stripped Zahhak was carried to Mountain Damavand where he was chained on one of its high peaks so that he died of hunger and thirst, and weather’s blows, but not without undergoing the agony which many of them had suffered under his tyrannous hands.

Towards the folio’s upper side in a cave-like cavity of the hill, obviously the Mountain Damavand, the bare-headed tyrant, clad in a blue choga and saffron pajama, is in the process of being tied with iron chains to the rock’s outcrop. A man on his left, with a hammer in hand, is fixing the nails with which are chained his legs, while on his right stands Faridan, a young man carrying a bull-head mace. With the gesture of his left hand he seems to be instructing his subordinate to fix the nail firm and deep so that the tyrant died of hunger and thirst and realized the agony that many suffered at his hands. All over the mountain range there are Faridan’s supporters, not less than twenty-five, some with arms, others with musical instruments, and many, bare-handed – a large number for a tiny canvas like the one the painting is rendered on. There are towards the bottom the horses, the tiny but well-delineated figures, that brought Faridan and his companions to the Mountain Damavada.

This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.


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