Thursday, September 10, 2015

Exquisite illustrations of life in India about 200 years ago

About 200 years ago in the early 1800's, there was an Anglo-Indian man, an adventurer, James Skinner, who commissioned portraits of people doing various jobs, fulfilling various roles, in India. 

When I lived in India from 1975 to 1985, many of these jobs continued, just as they had done for centuries and I feel, looking at these images, as if they are paintings of people I saw with my own eyes, doing the same things. 

Anyone who has traveled to India, and it's probably the same to this very day, can see people fulfilling these same roles in Indian society with very few, if any, changes. 

The quality of the painting of these images is marvelous. I love the details of each portrait, the trees, the shoes, landscapes, architecture. I only - and really -  miss seeing women fulfilling the many societal roles, other than "harlot", "conjurer" and acrobat, which were and are very much the same as many of the male roles, including those that were and are their own. 

Here is the man who commissioned these images, James Skinner. 

Colonel James Skinner,(1784-1841) or Sikander sahab was an Anglo-Indian military adventurer who is known for raising 2 cavalry regiments for the British, known as Skinner’s Horse. Even today they are part of the Indian army.
He spoke fluent Persian and is the author of the book Tashrih al-aqvam(an account of origins and occupations of some of the sects, castes, and tribes of India). It  was completed in 1825 and is part of the collection of the British Library.
Skinner translated into Persian the summary of the Vedas and Shastras with a survey survey of both Hindu and Muslim occupational groups and religious mendicants in the Delhi region.
The book also gives details of Hindu, Jain, and Sikh religious faqeers (mendicants) such as yogis and sanyasis as well as the Muslim Afghans of Kasur, qawwals, and fakirs.
The text was illustrated by a number of Delhi artists commissioned by Skinner for  the album, the chief of them being Ghulam Ali Khan. The watercolor paintings all seem to have been made from live subjects by the painter who accompanied Skinner on his travels."
These images below are from the Asia Society page, which offers no information about any of the specific images, only a brief general overview. I gathered as much information as I could about the images from this page. some of the images have no descriptions that I could find on the web: 

Hindu Tantric ascetic

Kshatriya warrior 

A Vaishya, a Hindu trader

A Vaishya money lender

An astrologer with his divination board.

"Dakaut", impure Brahman caste, represented by a fortune teller.

An image of the elephant keeper in India riding his elephant from Tashrih al-aqvam (1825).

Female conjuror/Bhanmati

A bear-keeper with his dancing bear.

Nat – gypsy acrobat

A singer or bard. Bandijan or kalavant, a singer or bard from the Bhat caste.

A Harlot

Ship's captain, represented by the Mars, a naval battleship

Bhangi, a caste represented by a sweeper.

Chamar, a caste represented by a tanner.

Shoemaker. "Moci", Muhammadan shoemakers, an occupational sub-division of the Camars.

A dyer ("chimba" class) dipping cloth in red dye.

Man with a rifle. Dhanak, a caste formerly of bowmen and hunters.

A brush maker.

"Kanjar", a wandering tribe who make rope and articles of grass.

Bavari, an itinerant predatory tribe, represented by a bird-snarer.

Kahar, the carrier or bearer class of the eastern Panjab.

"Mallah", boatman class. Boatman in the River Ravi in the foreground with Lahore Fort beyond. 

Two men wrestling.

Macchi, a Muslim caste of fishermen.

Man with his Ghulam servant

Hajjam, a barber, i.e. Muslim barber as opposed to Hindu

A Bari leaf-worker. Bari, a caste that made plates and cups from leaves.

Jarrah, a caste of surgeons.

Baghban, a gardener. Making a garland.

"Kunjra", an occupational group represented by a greengrocer.

Coppersmith (Thathera).

Ahangar, the Persian term for the Lahore caste of blacksmith.


Weaver, Julaha, a Muslim caste of weaver.

A tape-weaver.


Potter, Kumhar, the potter caste of the Panjab.

A brickmaker.

Goldsmith (Sunar). Sunar, the Goldsmith caste.

An artist seated, and at work. Tashrih al-aqvam.

Chipi (or chimba), a cloth printer. Printing green cloth with a red geometric design.

Khayyat (or Darzi), a tailor. Darzi is an occupational group rather than a caste but it is organised in the guilds.


A betel-nut seller preparing his wares.

Earpicker. A man cleaning another man's ears.

Kalal, a Hindu caste of distillers or tavern-keepers.

A professional criminal. Mina, a Hindu caste of professional criminals, represented by a man cutting through the wall of a building at night. 

"Raj", mason or bricklayer. An occupational sub-group of the "Tarkhan" or carpenter caste. Represented by a man ("raj") building the wall and another ("muzdur") mixing mortar.

Khati or Tarkhan, carpenter caste of the Panjab. Man sawing a plank.

Man attending a pilgrim.

Two actors. Bahrupiya, originally an occupational group of strolling players.

Washerman. Dhobi, a caste of washermen.

A cotton-dresser. Dhuniya or Pamjara, synonyms for the caste of cotton-dressers, represented by a masked man using a bow to prepare raw cotton. 

Acrobats. Nat, a caste of gypsy acrobats.

A water-seller. Saqqa, a Muslim caste of water-carriers.

Man sifting grain with a sieve. Agari, a grain-sifter.

Sweepings-sifter. A man searching sweepings for gold or silver.

A labourer wielding a pick.

Badhak or Qassab, the caste of butcher.

A snake-charmer of the Sapera caste.

"Bharbhumja", occupational caste of corn roasters. Man using a kiln type of brazier to roast grain.

A mat-weaver, possibly of the Dumna caste.

A screen-maker, possibly of the Dumna caste.

Polisher. (Term "Barhiya" caste applies to Hindus and "Saikalgar" to Muslims). Man polishing a "tulwar".

"Gandhi", a caste of perfumers or druggists. Surrounded by shelves of bottles, a man is pouring liquid into a bowl.

Ribari, a caste of camel-men.

Lime-burner. Cunari, a caste of lime-burners, in front of a kiln.

Runner or messenger ("paik").

Luniya, a caste of salt-diggers.

Kamdangar, a bowmaker. Shown bending the wood of a bow over a bowl of embers. 

Leather-bottle makers. (Presumably members of the "Chamaar" caste). 

Sannyasi, a Saiva mendicant.

"Paramahamsa", a naked ascetic, usually a Saiva.

"Dandi", a Saiva ascetic who possesses only a staff and a waterpot. 

"Sarabhanga" order of ascetics who did not believe in the ordinary ideas of pollution. 

A portrait of Bhajan Das Bairagi, a member of the Vaisnava order of ascetics, usually followers of Ramananda. 

"Nanga", a naked ascetic. This particular one is associated with the "Vairagis" and is armed with a spear, gun and tulwar.

"Dhundiya", a member of the strict "Sthanakavasi" sect of Jains. Wearing a mouthcloth to protect microscopic life from harm, he carries a brush to clear insects from his path.

Kanphata yogi. A Saiva ascetic with large earrings and wearing the 'linga' around his neck, accompanied by Tashrih al-aqvam. 1825 

"Jangama", a member of the priestly order of the "Virasaiva"

Nanakpanthi, a follower of the teachings of Guru Nanak, the first guru of Sikhism.

A Sikh

A Suthra Shahi, an order of Sikh devotees

Sadhu, Hindu renunciate.

Qusuri or Kusuri, a pathan of Kasur -Tashrih al-aqvam (1825)

‘Qawwal’, a sub-caste of the large Muslim caste of ‘Mirasis’ or singer/genealogists. A man beating a Dhol drum.

Sufi dervish

"Tashrih al-aqvam album

The illustrated Tashrih al-aqvam (an account of origins and occupations of some of the sects, castes, and tribes of India) was completed in 1825 and is part of the collection of the British Library.  The text, a summary of the Vedas and Shastras, translated into Persian by Colonel James Skinner (1778–1841), is a survey of both Hindu and Muslim occupational groups and religious mendicants in the Delhi region and begins with an account of the house of Timur down to Akbar II (reigned 1806–37). The largest section is devoted to the various Hindu castes found in the area around Delhi. In addition to these major occupational groups, The text also discusses Hindu, Jain, and Sikh religious mendicants such as yogis and sanyasis; after listing the kings of Avadh, the book describes the Muslim Afghans of Kasur, qawwals, and fakirs. The Tashrih al-aqvam, along with the Tazkirat al-umara(historical notices of some princely families of Rajasthan and the Panjab)—also by James Skinner and illustrated—are examples of a new kind of nonliterary Persian text written by, or under the patronage of the British that emerged in late Mughal literary culture and combined topography, biography, and ethnography.

Skinner commissioned Delhi artists to illustrate the album, the chief of them being Ghulam Ali Khan. The artist accompanied Skinner on his travels, and the watercolor portraits in the British Library manuscript are likely studies from life.The portraits in the Tashrih al-aqvam, especially those of ascetics, are done in a realistic manner that reflects the ethnographic quality of the text. Some figures are named. All of the paintings from the album may be viewed here."