An outstanding 17th century Talismanic Shirt

Wednesday, April 26th 2023

from Mogul India

A 1911 portrait of Alim Khan (1880-1944), Emir of Bukhara

Mughal India, 17th century

a rare talismanic shirt

comprised of six rectangular thick cotton pieces sewn together and covered with black, red and beige (formerly gold?) inscriptions: Qur'anic verses, the Shahadah, one verse of the Surah Yusuf (Chapter 12, 64); on the flip side, the Divine Names of Allah are written in Bihārī on the border.

H. 51,5 cm. W. 75 cm (about 20x30’’)
(wear and tear, partly erased décor, sewing, missing parts – most notably on the left sleeve – and stains).

Provenance, according to family lore:
- the Mohammed Alim Khan (1880-1944) collection, Uzbekistan (former Boukhara);
- the Jamshed Khan collection, Qamari, Afghanistan;
- by succession, the Mourid Ahmad collection, Strasbourg, France.


Worn next to the skin, under clothing or armor, talismanic shirts were supposed to offer spiritual protection and protect from any danger, illness, bewitchment or injury, whether sentimental or sustained in battle. Their purpose seems to have varied according to the period and the region they were made in. Several examples of Indian, Ottoman or Safavid shirts have survived to this day; they are usually completely covered with Qur'anic inscriptions, names of gods, prayers, numbers and magic squares.

About fifteen Indian talismanic tunics dating from the sultanate period (15th-early 16th century) have been catalogued by Eloïse Brac de la Perrière ("Les tuniques talismaniques indiennes d'époque pré-moghole et moghole à la lumière d'un groupe de Corans en écriture bihârî", in Journal Asiatique, 297/1, 2009, pp. 57-81 and more precisely pp. 62-63). Although their decoration is identical to ours, both with regards to the text arrangement in squares, in the roundels and on the border as to their religious inscriptions, these tunics seem to be made of a finer cotton.

Most of these 15 tunics belong to some of the finest Islamic art collections, such as:
- The Guimet Museum, Paris (no. inv. MA 5680) - India, 15th-early 16th century;
- Furusiyya Art Foundation (inv # R-785), Delhi sultanate, 15th century (see L’Art des chevaliers en pays d’Islam. Furusiyya Art Foundation exhibition catalogue, Bashir Mohamed Ed., Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 2007, cat. 322, p. 335) ;
- The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait National Museum, Kuwait (no. inv. LNS 114 T) - India, probably 16th century;
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, NY, USA (no. inv. 1998.199) - Northern India or Deccan Plateau, 15th-early 16th century.

Three more similar Indian shirts purportedly dating back to the 17th century have also been auctioned at Christie's London over thirty years ago (November 21, 1986, lot 84; April 30, 1992, lot 78; and April 27, 1993, lot 38).

Other shirts with slightly different inscription arrangements are held in the Khalili Collection, including two supposedly dating back to 16th-17th century Safavid Iran (inv. no. TXT 76 and TXT 77) and one from Central Asia, signed by the Yasawiyyah Sufi brotherhood (inv. #TXT 230) (see David Alexander, The Arts of War. Arms and Armour of the 7th to 19th centuries, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, Vol. XXI, Nour Foundation, Azimuth Editions, London, 1992, cat. 33-34, pp. 78-80 for both Iranian shirts and Killian Lécuyer's essay on “Magical and apotropaic objects of Central Asia”. Preliminary research and historiographic approach. Master 2 thesis under the direction of Eloïse Brac de la Perrière, Sorbonne University, June 2022, fig. 28, p. 68 and front page for the Central Asian shirt).

Mohammed Alim Khan (Bukhara, 1880 - Kabul, 1944), last emir of the Manghit dynasty of the Bukhara Emirate in Central Asia (1911-1920) once had a dream that an Arab would hand him a gift from Prophet Muhammad. Two days later, an Arab showed up at the gates of his palace, carrying this very talismanic shirt before mysteriously disappearing. After being deposed by the Soviets at the end of August 1920, Alim Khan took refuge in Afghanistan, where he was hosted for a year by Jamshid Khan, governor of Qamari in the province of Kabul, who welcomed him as a member of his own family. Jamshid Khan probably was a descendant of famous Safavid officer Jamshid Khan, Qollar-Aghasi from 1663 to 1667 after having been governor of Semnan (1646-1656), Astarabad (1656-1664), and Kandahar (starting in 1663). Alim Khan offered this precious relic to his host before moving to Kabul, where he died twenty years later. Jamshid Khan's grandson, singer Mourid Ahmad, grand-cousin of President Babrak Karmal, took this shirt with him when he left Afghanistan for Europe with his family in 1990.

The "On the Roads to Samarkand" exhibition held at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris until June 4, 2023, begins with the presentation of several sumptuous chapans having belonged to the last emir of Bukhara, Mohammed Alim Khan, including the coronation chapan which he wore when succeeding his father Said Abd al-Ahad Khan at the age of 31. Chapans, the main piece of men's clothing, are a coat worn on clothes. The quality of the fabrics, fine workmanship and richness of the gold and silk embroidery of these chapans show the luxurious and sophisticated life at the Bukhara court in the early 20th century.

Laure Soustiel
translated by Sabine Vincenot
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