What is common between Mughal emperor Jahangir and the most famous extinct bird Dodo?
One obvious feature may be they both do not exist anymore – the Indian dynasty and the national bird of the African island of Mauritius.
But there is another link between them. The seventeenth century ruler had in his bizarre collection a pair of Dodos – alive, not stuffed ones. At least, that's what transpires from a painting kept in a museum. The museum is also located in a very unlikely place – Russia.
The name of the flightless bird 'Dodo' means stupid. Humans are mostly accused for its extinction. Sailors used to kill them for meat, domestic animals were equally harmful for their survival.
How did a pair of Dodos end up in Jahangir's court?
Peter Mundy, the famous English traveller of that time talked, in his records, of two Dodos brought to the city of Surat (Gujarat) by the sailors (Mundy was in that region between 1628 and 1633). It is thought that the Dodos were brought through Surat to Jahangir's court via Portuguese-controlled Goa.
The Dodo in Emperor Jahangirs court was immortalised by his court painter Ustad Mansur, who had done a colourful painting of the bird. It was the first colour painting of a Dodo. Although many paintings of Dodo were done afterwards—very few were done having a live Dodo as an object of reference.
All of Mansur's masterpieces produced during the era of Jahangir and these helped him earn the title Nadir-al-Asr (Unequalled of the Age). Ustad Mansur is also known to the bird world for his detailed painting of Siberian Crane and Bengal Florican, which I saw in National Museum in Kolkata. But for the famous Dodo painting I had to visit Hermitage museum in St Petersburg (former Leningrad) in Russia.
Why did Emperor Jahangir keep Dodos in his collection? That's no surprise, he had always been keen on natural world and collected all kinds of exotic animals from all over the world. His collection included Zebra from Ethiopia, Cranes, Turkey and many other birds.
My personal Dodo-curiosity started in Durban, South Africa where I saw my first Dodo skeleton. Since then I have seen a few skeletons and stuffed Dodos in various museums all over the world.
When I was in Russia, witnessing the mastery of Ustad Mansur, I could imagine how surprised and amazed the Mughals were to see the feathery wonders at their court!
It is not known what happened to the Dodo birds at the Mughal court, or how their only known painting ended up in Russia.