A Gilt-Copper Fish Standard (Mahi-Maratib)
This very rare, gilt copper fish standard is beautifully engraved with scales that cover the main body; on the underside there are elaborate motifs of lotus flowers that surround the conical pole mount. The sharp, jagged fins on either side and on top of the fish, with its iron teeth and engraved barbels above the mouth add to the menacing look of this aquatic monster, which is modelled on the man-eating giant devil catfish, or goonch, found in the rivers of India.
This form of fish standard first appeared in the late 17th century, used by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707; see a miniature painting depicting the emperor Aurangzeb on a palanquin amidst preparations for a royal hunt; the elephant riders carry several fish standards. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003. 430, dated ca. 1705-20). The mahi was one of the most prestigious honours of Mughal insignia, awarded to the highest ranked nobles. The fearsome reputation and appearance of the real-life giant devil catfish is immortalised in the fish standards, which were carried into battle, signifying their military function and ultimately the power of the ruler’s troops. The metal fish head would have been attached to a pole with a fabric body, which would have moved in the wind, thus making an impressive and intimidating sight to the enemy (see catalogue entry 68, p. 210 in Gods, Kings, and Tigers). Fish standards were also used in ceremonial processions, for example, at coronations and royal weddings, symbolising the loyalty of the nobles to the ruler.
The fish standard was accompanied by two gilded balls on poles, signifying power; the whole ensemble is called mahi-o-maratib, or fish and dignitaries. A watercolour painting dated ca. 1715 from Jodhpur depicts the fish standard carried on an elephant (see cat. 132, p. 244 in Peacock in the Desert). For a part of a set of royal insignia, mahi-o-maratib, including the fish standard, see fig. 76 in Maharaja. The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts.
There were also fish standards made either entirely of cloth or of metal, including the head, the latter having a more rigid look (see fig. 8.30, a 17th century silver fish standard in Treasury of the World: Jewelled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals). However, the most impressive form of the fish standard is the ferocious-looking metal head depicting the goonch, a tribute to the skills of the artist for executing such a likeness to this real-life aquatic creature which came to symbolise power and courage.
- For a similar metal fish standard to this one, dated ca. 1700, see catalogue number 180, p. 303 in Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700.
- The David Collection, Copenhagen has a silver coin with an image of a fish banner on the reverse, denoting the royal house of Awadh, 1842 AD. (David Collection, Invoice No. C438).
- A painting dated ca. 1840, Delhi, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London depicts two elephants carrying the fish and sun insignia in the Mughal Emperor’s ceremonial procession on the occasion of the Eid (accession number IS. 486-1950).
- For a present-day ceremonial use of the fish-standard in Jodhpur, see p. 172 in Peacock in the Desert.
Haidar, Navina Najat and Sardar, Marika. Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700. Opulence and Fantasy, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 2015.
Jackson Anna and Jaffer Amin (ed.). Maharaja. The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts. Victoria and Albert Museum Publications, London. 2009.
Jasol, Karni. Peacock in the Desert. The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2018.
Keene, Manuel. Treasury of the World: Jewelled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals. Thames and Hudson. 2001.
Welch, Stuart Cary. Gods, Kings, and Tigers. The Art of Kotab. Prestel-Verlag Munich-New York. 1997.